Mumbai, India – For 40 years, 50-year-old Vithal Tare has been earning his living through fishing. Every day, he takes his boat out into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai.
But now he and other members of the Koli community (‘fishermen’ in local Marathi language) face an uncertain future: The planned 34km Coastal Road Project (CRP) will diminish an already dwindling supply of fish.
Activists and environmentalists say the nearly $1.97bn project – which would involve reclaiming land, constructing underwater tunnels and building stilted roads over the Arabian Sea – will be an “environmental disaster”, damaging the mangroves that act as a buffer between the sea and the land and, in so doing, help preserve the coastal ecosystem.
The project was approved by various government departments last December but is still awaiting clearance from the federal environment ministry.
Local fishermen say that several infrastructure and real estate projects over the past few decades have altered tides and currents, driving fish away, and that they fear that by cutting down the mangroves, the CRP will destroy fish breeding grounds.
Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, is home to nearly 10 percent of India’s fishing population, and the CRP is expected to affect more than 35,000 fishermen across 23 urban villages there.
Standing outside his home, Tare explains that he used to employ eight people, but not any more.
“Our lives changed as soon as construction of BWSL began,” he says, referring to the six-kilometre-long Bandra-Worli Sea Link that connects Mumbai’s western and central suburbs to the south. Constructed at a cost of $248m and running over Mahim Bay, it was opened in 2009.
“The noise and the land reclamation drove the fish away, and we incurred losses,” Tare says of that project.
He believes BWSL has adversely affected the livelihood of those in his community, while only benefitting builders and those wealthy enough to own cars.
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Despite several attempts to contact Radheshyam Mopalwar, the managing director of Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), which is involved in the construction of the project, Al Jazeera was unable to get a comment.
Rajesh Mangela, the secretary of Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti, a statewide fishermen’s association, says that since the construction of the BWSL bridge, at least two varieties of prawns and fish have diminished.
This means that fishermen must go further out into the ocean for their catch, but with tides doubling in height in recent years due to reclamation of the sea, this poses an added danger, particularly for those with small boats.
“Illegal constructions through reclamation of land by powerful builders has played havoc,” says Rajesh. “We have gone to court, registered cases against errant builders and corrupt government officials to no avail.”
Now, he says, he fears that “no lessons have been learned from the effects of BWSL”.
The authorities say that the CRP will reduce traffic congestion and pollution in one of the world’s most polluted cities.
According to the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, the road will decongest Mumbai and create 91 hectares of green spaces. T he government’s Joint Technical Committee Report says the planned eight-lane highway will also increase road space to accommodate more vehicles.
But those who oppose it point to state transportation experts who say that the BWSL was initially expected to accommodate 125,000 vehicles a day, but that it only carries 45,000 because the toll fee- 400 rupees ($6) – is prohibitively expensive and public transport vehicles – used by nearly 90 percent of residents are not permitted to use it. They suspect the same will be true of the CRP.
Hussain Indorewala, a faculty member at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, told a public hearing held by Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) – an unofficial body of retired judges – in October that: “The CRP won’t ease traffic woes. Cars will be dumped from one part of the city to another. It won’t stop pollution. It disincentivises public transport.”
Only 1.2 percent of Mumbai’s population of 12.4 million will use the coastal road, he argues.
A report by IPT comprising of urban planners, environmentalists, transport experts, along with serving and former senior officials of the municipal corporation, who are also part of the IPT, described the planned CRP as unviable and damaging.
Fishermen like Tare say it isn’t just their livelihoods that are at stake. “It is a question of our identity,” he explains, looking out towards the sea.
Members of the Koli community say an increasing number of young people are taking up other jobs rather than following their elders into the fishing trade.
Sixty-two-year-old environmental activist Vivek Sundara takes daily evening walks on the promenade that overlooks the Arabian Sea. He is alarmed by the prospect of the CRP.
“I don’t know how Mumbai will deal with global warming and rising sea levels,” he says. “The CRP will destroy the mangroves and cause traffic congestion and noise and air pollution in one of the last remaining public spaces.”
The city, India’s financial hub, witnessed its worst-ever flooding in 2005 when close to 1,500 people were killed. Unregulated construction in coastal areas was considered partly responsible. But little has changed since.
“Illegal reclamation of land for construction was responsible for the 2005 floods,” says Darryl D’Monte, the chairman of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.
“Earlier, rainwater from the streets could flow into the ocean, but now the haphazard construction has impeded the flow, causing flooding. Construction debris is also dumped in the drains, which remain choked,” he says.
According to a research paper by Owi Kale from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai has lost almost 40 percent of its mangroves as a result of land being reclaimed for construction and development projects.
“Mangroves are known to help prevent flooding,” D’Monte explains.
The Maharashtra state government made changes to the Coastal Regulation Zone rules in order to greenlight the CRP last year, but activists say the project is still in violation of those rules, which bars construction nearly 500 metres from the coast.
“Mumbai has been left with one-tenth of the beaches it had a few years ago because of reclamation. Dadar’s 50-metre coastline that existed a decade ago, has been reduced to three metres due to BWSL,” says V Subramanyan Iyer, a former geology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.
“Mumbai lies in the seismic zone III, and so CRP is not practical,” adds Iyer, who is also part of IPT, explaining that Mumbai falls within the “moderate damage” risk zone for earthquakes.
In the village of Moragaon in the Juhu neighbourhood of Mumbai, home to 800 fishing families, there is an air of despondency. Narmada Mangela, a 75-year-old fisherwoman and activist, says she has paid the price for resisting construction projects.
She says her home was bulldozed along with the rest of her community in 2005, after she mobilised residents against land reclamation by a private builder.
“I was at the forefront of the agitation,” she explains from her small kitchen. “That’s why they demolished my house, along with 165 other homes. Fifty-eight of them still have not been rehabilitated.” And it isn’t only homes that are endangered. Rajesh from the fisherman’s association explains that a planned water sports park is likely to occupy an area near the beach that his community uses to repair their boats and dry their nets. Seventy-year-old fish vendor Pushpa Mangela says that the fishing community does not even benefit from any of the developments. Her son cannot get a job as a lifeguard at the water park, she explains.
“You need five years of water sports experience. Our boys know about tides, others don’t,” she says. “How can we get experience when they don’t give us jobs?”
Tare sits on his boat looking at the sea.
“Why doesn’t the government ask us what to do and what is good for us?” he asks. Why are they catering to a certain class of people while destroying us?”