One does not know what to make of the state government’s green signal for the extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (BWSL) northwards to Versova. This project has been kept on the backburner for several months and has all of a sudden been resuscitated. It is hardly a secret that Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is not in favour of this more expensive project and has been advocating a 36-km-long coastal road instead. He would like to initiate this major infrastructure project during his regime.
The 10-km-long extension of the BWSL will cost around Rs4,045 crores — or around Rs400 crores a km. The coastal road, which follows the contours of the shore, will cost around Rs80 crores a km, or about
Rs2,900 crores. However, the Bandra-Versova Sea Link (BVSL) has received the sanction of the Union Environment Ministry (a year ago), while the coastal road has not. This is because the coastal road will reclaim land to facilitate the alignment, which the ministry will not easily sanction. Any construction along this coast is forbidden due to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). What’s more, there are mangroves which are accorded even greater protection as a vital ecological entity.
Citizens will be amazed to learn of a rift when it comes to agencies involved in constructing transport links. The key player is the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). It built 50-odd fly-overs when the BJP-Shiv Sena was in power in the mid-90s. It constructed the BWSL for Rs1,600 crores and is anxious to extend it north. The MSRDC is firmly in the camp of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
The dominant Congress partner has the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Agency (MMRDA) under its wing. On several transport projects — notably, the fly-overs — it was not consulted, although it is supposed to be the nodal planning agency. It is the one cash-rich agency, since it develops and sells land, notably in the Bandra-Kurla Complex. However, for reasons best known to successive state governments, it has ceded its planning function and is increasingly interested in constructing major road projects. It completed the 17-km-long Eastern Freeway last year and is eyeing the coastal road now.
In all probability, given the peculiar political permutations when it comes to road projects, the Congress may be dangling the BVSL as a sop to the NCP. The latter is already on the back foot on the irrigation scams, for which Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had to take the rap. His uncle, Sharad Pawar, makes no bones about the coalition’s future after summer. Last week, Pawar Jr openly alleged that the Congress was holding back several MSRDC projects which might harm the coalition’s poll prospects, including the Worli-Haji Ali Sea Link, a marine transport network around Mumbai and the augmentation of the Mumbai-Pune expressway. It may be entirely possible that Chavan is going through the motions of allowing the MSRDC to float tenders for the BVSL to boost the NCP’s image, without any intention of going ahead with it.
It is high time that this political “division of the spoils” in road projects ended. Decisions on such schemes, which can alter the face of the city, need to be taken purely on merit and not on any grandstanding. Mumbai is too important a metropolis not just for Maharashtra but the entire country as the commercial capital, and one which generates huge financial resources. Due to its peculiar geography as a peninsula, it is unique among Indian cities inasmuch that its main transport axis is from north to south. The MMRDA should be reinstated as the apex planning agency for the entire city and the MSRDC should not be both conceptualising and constructing projects. Ideally, it should be executing schemes which the MMRDA, under the umbrella of the ruling coalition, decides upon.
As an option, there is little doubt that the BVSL is superior to the coastal road¸ even if it is five times more expensive, per km, than the latter. This link, like its antecedent, lies 900 metres into the sea and does not play havoc with the coastline. Some of Mumbai’s most iconic stretches lie here — most prominently, the Juhu beach. On Carter Road and Bandstand, citizens have taken the initiative and built with Shabana Azmi’s MPs’ Local Area Development funds two promenades which are used by thousands of walkers every day. The coastal road envisages 1.8-km-long reclamation along Carter Road, with “compensatory plantation” of mangroves. Due to the diligence of citizens, these mangroves have been protected in the last two decades, forming the biggest southernmost patch on the city’s west coast. As any ecologist knows, it is far from easy to plant mangroves, a unique vegetation at the interface of land and sea.
Inexplicably, even the BVSL envisages a “traffic dispersal point” at Joggers Park at the southernmost tip of Carter Road. This will presumably comprise a bridge on stilts off the sea link. Even if the stretch of road is widened there, it will be impossible to cope with the traffic coming to and from the link, as is apparent from the jams experienced every weekend. Joggers Park is visited by hundreds and is on the tourist map of the city. Traffic will back up on access points because the width of the roads is insufficient. In any case, there is already access to the link from Bandra Reclamation which, after the BVSL is completed, will witness fewer jams as motorists will use exits at Juhu and further north.
At the same time, it is necessary to see the BVSL as the lesser of two evils. Both destroy Mumbai’s most precious natural assets — its coastline and vistas — for a tiny minority of car owners. The question still remains: how will the link be extended southwards from Worli to Nariman Point? If this is not done, fewer motorists will use the link and result in a loss to the exchequer, as does the BWSL. The public is subsidising motorists.
There is no question that every megacity must prioritise public over private transport. Sea links and coastal roads do exactly the opposite. Indeed, progressive cities like Singapore and London are discouraging cars from entering the central business district while Mumbai, where cars constitute only 5 per cent of commuters using motorized transport, is laying out the red carpet. Mumbai, once renowned nationally for its excellent train and bus services, must reinvigorate these. One step it has rightly taken recently is to raise parking fees in certain busy south Mumbai areas up to Rs60 an hour and also to charge for parking at night.
The author is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)