This year, as the monsoons unleashed severe flooding in South Mumbai, we were presented with standard narratives of the disaster. The bureaucracy blamed the high-intensity rainfall and outdated infrastructure; the people blamed it on a lack of “political will” and an absence of planning.

After the devastating 2005 floods in Mumbai, the Madhav Chitale Committee report pointed out that even if the entire system had been upgraded as per its new stormwater drainage project or BRIMSTOWAD, it would not have been adequate for the rainfall of such high intensity. BRIMSTOWAD was designed to deal with “normal occasions of rainfall”, not high intensity rainfall events.

The Chitale report came out 14 years ago. Since then, extreme rainfall events have become more frequent. Meanwhile, natural water courses are being filled up and diverted (disrupting drainage patterns), permeable areas are being paved and built upon (increasing run-off), coastal areas are being reclaimed to create new land (displacing water elsewhere).

Mumbai is drowning because its land is being made more impermeable, ecological systems are being built upon, and extreme weather events are becoming “normal.” Yet, instead of examining the relations between coastal communities and delicate ecosystems, Mumbai’s planners are looking for ways to make more land.

Mumbai’s planners are looking for ways to make more land. Credit: Aaran Patel

The proposal to build a land-filled 9.8-kilometre Coastal Road along the western shoreline has attracted strong criticism: from public transport advocates, who decry the neglect of overburdened public transport infrastructure; environmentalists, who scorn the authorities’ ignorance of a fragile coastal ecology; residents, who worry about the traffic mayhem it will create in their neighborhoods; and from the artisanal fisherfolk, who point out that the project will decimate their traditional shallow water fishing grounds and coastal commons.

The city government and highway builders have circumvented coastal protection regulations, evaded democratic process, skirted public debate, and outmaneuvered legal opposition to continue “reclaiming” the coast exclusively for motorists and developers. Already, a significant amount of work – mainly land-filling – has been completed, without requisite environmental and wildlife clearance.

On August 18, the Chief Justice of India conceded that the project is not exempt from clearances.

Although slowed by the flight of construction workers due to Mumbai’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, work on the project continued even during the total lockdown in the months of April and May – the municipal corporation claimed that the reclamation was “essential pre-monsoon work”. Curiously, the city’s stormwater system did not get such attention.

And so, even as Mumbai sees the number of Covid-19 cases rise, with tens of thousands needing food and healthcare, frontline workers lacking safety equipment, and health infrastructure unable to cope, the government continues to invest in a project that will serve no more than 0.54% of its daily commuter trips.

Reclamation at Tata Garden at Bhulabhai Desai Road has destroyed the fragile intertidal ecology. Residents allege that flooding has been acute in these areas this monsoon due to the blockage of storm water drains. Credit: Aaran Patel

Inertia of infrastructure

In the early 1990s, city planners were gripped by dreams of a “world class Mumbai” modeled on the fossil-fuel addicted American metropolis. Based on these outmoded recommendations and an increase in access to infrastructure financing, highway building became an obsession. In two decades, Mumbai built 50 flyovers, multiple arterial links, a freeway on the eastern coast and a 5.6 kilometre sea-link – all meant predominantly for cars. The latest link of this high-speed expressway network is the Coastal Road, which, estimated at a cost of Rs. 14,000 crores, is set to become the most expensive freeway ever built in the country.

People don’t use cars – as transport planners like to believe – simply because they can afford them; people use cars because we continue to invest in them. Public transport advocates often point out that car-oriented infrastructure projects take away both investment and road space from mass-transit modes like buses and railways, and non-motorised modes like walking and cycling. This is undoubtedly true. We must add: like other mass-transit modes, cars require fossil fuels to run; but while public transportation gets people around, cars are more efficient at converting fossil fuels into CO2.

The behavioral shift towards private automobiles is encouraged by a vast infrastructure that makes car use possible and profitable – road networks, fuel-stations, oil terminals, construction plants, automobile factories – which embody the interests of economic and political groups who own and control them. Each time the city builds a freeway, this infrastructure is strengthened, making it more entrenched, making carbon mitigation more difficult, and making alternatives less likely to succeed. This inertia of certain kinds of infrastructure is called “carbon lock-in” – the tendency of fossil-fuel based technologies to persist and perpetuate behavior that accelerate emissions, “lock-out” alternatives, and tether future generations to a path they did not choose.

One of the fundamental tenets of climate science is that emissions are cumulative, which means that every tonne of CO2 emitted is more lethal than the one released before. And therefore, as the city pours money and concrete to build a freeway inducing more car traffic, it endangers the future of generations to come. Iin the words of the climate historian Andreas Malm, the emissions produced by cars are “so many invisible missiles aimed at the future”.

The behavioral shift towards private automobiles is encouraged by a vast infrastructure that makes car use possible and profitable. Credit: Aaran Patel

Sea-level rise and flooding

Over more than a century, the average temperature in Mumbai has risen, and extremely heavy rainfall days have increased. The warming Arabian Sea is generating high-intensity storms in the region. But with wetlands and forested areas indiscriminately sacrificed for real-estate development, the coastal city’s ability to absorb and drain storm water has been severely damaged. On the other hand, basic infrastructure suffers from appalling deficiencies. As a result, almost every year as the monsoon hits Mumbai, the city floods – and hundreds of people living in low-lying areas of the city lose their lives.

The human and socio-economic impacts of Mumbai’s neoliberal development policy become obvious each year as new disasters strike the city. The denial of the risks posed by climate change and denial of the causal links between “development” and devastation is staggering.

For instance, the technical studies for the Coastal Road project systematically underestimate sea-level rise due to global warming - a nothing-to-worry-about assumption of 1.27 mm per year. This, despite the recorded correlation between global temperature and sea-level rise of about 3.4 mm per year. Meanwhile, the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates sea-level rise by 1.1 meters by 2100, while other institutions estimate anything between 0.5 to over 2 meters by 2100.

According to the US military, scenarios of 1.5 meter rise by 2100 cannot be ruled out for planning adaptation measures. Mumbai’s average coastal line is fairly low, and in many areas it is just 1 meter above the mean sea level.

Mumbai’s average coastal line is fairly low, and in many areas it is just 1 meter above the mean sea level. Credit: Aaran Patel

Undermining the role of ecosystem services

From an ecological perspective, the coast is a highly productive zone comprising diverse interconnected ecosystems: rocky shores and sandy beaches intercepted at various points along the coastline by creeks or estuaries where freshwater streams meet the sea. The geomorphic formations of the nearshore (intertidal) and foreshore (subtidal) areas of the rocky coastline determine the nature of coastal habitats that harbor and support various communities of organisms.

The submerged rocky seabed is a rich breeding ground for a variety of fish that converge in this area at the end of summer during the monsoons to lay eggs; and the tidal pools in the intertidal area which is currently being reclaimed, is a nursery for juvenile fish.

Mumbai’s average coastal line is fairly low, and in many areas it is just 1 meter above the mean sea level. Credit: Aaran Patel

Yet the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the Coastal Road project seriously underplayed the rich ecology of the rocky shore. When obtaining clearance for the project from the expert appraisal committee, the Mumbai municipal corporation denied the existence along the shoreline of protected, important or sensitive species of flora or fauna for breeding and nesting. It is not surprising, that the Bombay High Court declared that the studies carried out for the project were inadequate, and that the clearance was granted with nothing more than “lip service to the requirement of the law.”

When citizens’ groups pointed out the presence of corals in the intertidal area – a Schedule 1 species protected under the wildlife protection Act – the municipal corporation commissioned studies after reclamation had already begun, now paying lip service to the requirement of ecological protection.

The post-facto studies propose “mitigation measures”: quasi-ecological interventions that eschew a systemic grasp of ecological processes that sustain biodiversity as well as of intertidal ecologies which absorb and hold excess tidal water, act as a buffer against tidal currents and help in flood mitigation. In fact, unaltered coastal ecosystems can often provide better and less expensive flood and storm protection.

According to geomorphologists, reclamations for the project will significantly affect tidal activity and cause an increase in wave and tidal attack on structures along the shore, resulting in damage to human establishments, and endangering lives.

The Mumbai municipal corporation commissioned studies on the impacts of reclamation on biodiversity after the reclamation had already begun, paying lip service to the requirement of ecological protection. Credit: Aaran Patel

Social ecology, customary rights and ocean grabbing

It is revealing that the Mumbai municipal corporation hired consultants to prepare both the project and implementation plans as well as the social and environmental impact assessment studies of their own plans – a practice that is inevitably prone to a whole range of evaluation biases.

For instance, in the Social Impact Assessment for the project, there was neither an acknowledgement of the existence of the traditional fishing zones, or of the customary use of the nearshore and foreshore areas for artisanal fishing activity.

For artisanal fisherfolk, the coast is a productive landscape – the intricate fabric of economic, social and cultural life, rooted in the interface between land and water. The health of the ecology of these shallow coastal waters are thus critical to the livelihoods of the artisanal fishers, who have adopted methods of fishing suited to various ecological and geomorphic conditions of the coast; their customary practices ensure the preservation of coastal biodiversity.

Artisanal fisherfolk follow distinctive social arrangements of apportioning the marine and intertidal commons. Credit: Aaran Patel

The fisherfolk follow distinctive social arrangements of apportioning these marine and intertidal commons - areas that are now being snatched away from them for coastal real-estate. Land-filling for the Coastal Road will decimate the coastal ecology of the intertidal and shallow waters and the livelihoods of the artisanal fisherfolk.

Reclamation for the Coastal Road, is thus “ocean grabbing” – defined as “capturing of control by powerful economic actors of crucial decision-making around fisheries”. It involves the violation of economic, social and cultural rights of coastal communities, especially small fishers, that depend on the sea for livelihood. The project will lead to the dispossession of the artisanal fishers, and appropriation of the use, control and access to the fishing waters and marine resources from its existing users and right-holders.

Women fishers harvest oysters from the oyster beds from the intertidal rocky shore in the bay surrounding Haji Ali dargah. Credit: Aaran Patel

Environmental deregulation and marketable nature

When confronted with the various criticisms of the project, the city government quickly recast the Coastal Road project as “coastal protection infrastructure”. Coastal ecology will be supplanted with Miyawaki forests. Biodiversity will supposedly thrive in eco-concrete. Nature is now available as marketable technologies – and every system “viable”. Climate change mitigation, after all, can also be made profitable

Since the 2005 floods in Mumbai, environmental experts have predicted many such events unless planners realise the role of natural areas and permeable land in providing ecosystem services. Yet, planners continue to act with the assumption that Mumbai’s most urgent priorities are freeways, not storm water drains; cars, not clean air; real-estate development, not environmental protection. This is a mindset shaped by land economics and hydraulics, not life systems and hydrology.

Sea walls will not hold back storm surges; if business-as-usual continues, Mumbai will soon be untenable as a city. Credit: Aaran Patel

In its original form, the Coastal Regulation Zone of 2011 only permitted roads on stilts to ensure free flow of tidal waters and minimise ecological impacts. Months before the Coastal Road project was cleared, however, the CRZ was amended to permit reclamation of the seabed for constructing roads –
frustrating the very intent of the law it was introduced under. As we see the social and economic costs of planning failures multiply each year, the only legal protections to ecological systems are being relaxed and dismantled. The storm is picking up speed, the rainfall is gathering intensity, the oceans are rising, but the authorities continue to talk and act as though the worst is behind us.

If business-as-usual continues, Mumbai will soon be untenable. Sea walls will not hold back storm surges, Miyawaki forests on reclaimed land will not absorb surface water, eco-concrete will not revive lost livelihoods.

Our cities urgently need progressive environmental action rather than schemes that help some people profit from crises. Ecological planning, environmental restoration, investment in basic infrastructure, retrofitting for climate mitigation: these are some steps that may help us cope and endure. But the “window of opportunity” is shrinking.

Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala teach at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture in Mumbai, and are members of the Collective for Spatial Alternatives. Aaran Patel is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.