For close to five years, Mumbai has resembled a gigantic construction site. A new coastal road, a metro rail, and a trans-harbour link are among the many ongoing infrastructure projects that are meant to transform India’s commercial capital into a modern and efficient city. The government’s recent announcements and the acceleration of construction point to a November 2023-early 2024 completion of several big-ticket projects.
By many accounts, this will be the largest scale infrastructure overhaul Mumbai has ever had. Does it need it? After all, it has a robust transportation network, constant electricity supply, sufficient water, and a reasonably high quality of civic services. But it is also true that the population explosion in this economic hub, leading to a strain on its resources, may have left urban planners with little choice.
Concerned citizens and experts, however, question the perceived benefits from the current string of projects to the larger populace and the prioritisation of transport projects. Public opinion is divided, though. Those who are better off believe that wider roads and faster trains will help in commuting. The middle-class earners and daily wagers, who do not drive cars or take the metro, are sure it will be only a marginal improvement. Environmentalists warn of the potential dangers. Every project is an “ecological disaster”, said Anand Pendharkar, from SPROUTS, an organisation working for environmental awareness in Mumbai.
Urban planners Frontline spoke to said the projects were ad hoc, poorly planned, lack vision, and essentially a missed opportunity. “Major infrastructure projects in a city like Mumbai should have been planned methodically and with purpose,” said Alan Abraham, a Mumbai-based architect who is part of a recently formed informal group of 200 architects that wants to work on holistic improvement of the city. “The present overhauling seems to be a patchwork job to fix some issues. The projects need to tie in together, which is not happening now.”
Abraham cites two examples: the under construction trans-harbour road from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai has a six-lane highway but no railway line, besides a coastal road and a metro line on the same or similar routes. “If you can build a bridge across the sea to the mainland, why not a railway line? It will help people of all income brackets,” said Abraham. “Mumbai has an extremely efficient local train network. Additional bus services could have been added to the coastal road. That would have taken some pressure off the local train lines.”
In fact, in early March, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) returned the iconic red BEST double-decker bus to the roads in an electric avatar. “The MUTP and BEST are already in place and doing a reasonably good job. But they seem to be doing everything possible to destroy BEST,” said Abraham.
Barriers with “Mumbai is upgrading” painted on them have come up across the city. The work includes the 21.8-km trans-harbour link to Navi Mumbai; the new international airport in Navi Mumbai, which is expected to be ready by December 2024; an eight-lane, 29.2-km coastal road from the tip of South Mumbai to the sea-link bridge; a six-lane road from Goregaon (Mumbai west) to Mulund (Mumbai east); the 1.7-km Airoli-Katai tunnel road that will connect to the six-lane 33.8-km Airoli-Kalyan-Shil corridor; the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet-train corridor; and the piece de resistance—a 14-line underground and overground metro rail with an overall coverage of 356.9 km.
While the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) coastal road is funded by them, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (MMRDA) projects are a mix of equity, and bilateral, multilateral as well as syndicated debt, according to their website.
A Comprehensive Transport Study (CTS) that the MMRDA commissioned in 2005 and completed in 2008, states: “In the last decade, after the completion of the CTS, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) has seen major and remarkable development.” The study says this finding was endorsed by the Draft Regional Plan (2016-36), the development plan 2034 of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, and the Mumbai Port Trust proposed development plan. The CTS also identified Thane and Kalyan as major growth centres.
The study says Mumbai’s population is estimated to hit 34 million by the end of 2031. It now stands at 15.4 million. The UN Habitat data say Mumbai is the second most crowded city in the world, with 31,700 people per sq km. Data from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways say that registered non-transport cars in Mumbai stood at 27,31,851 in 2019 (the latest data). The total number of vehicles is estimated to be 41 lakh. Obviously, the cars, people, and land ratio are putting tremendous pressure on the 603 sq km that is Mumbai.
The projects were conceived keeping in mind this growth rate and the fact that public transport is extensively used. While MMRDA officials are unwilling to comment on the projects, a private contractor with the metro project said the geographical limitations of Mumbai as an island city left the government with no option but to expand towards the north and to the mainland.
- By many accounts, Mumbai is undergoing the largest scale infrastructure overhaul it has ever had. But does it need it?
- Urban planners Frontline spoke to said the projects were ad hoc, poorly planned, lack vision, and essentially a missed opportunity.
- The reasons for the current infrastructure push are obvious; the BMC elections are scheduled for later this year and the Assembly election will be in 2024.
- To improve the current development plans, architects and urban planners have presented the government recommendations for the Development Plan 2034.
Race to the BMC elections
The reasons for the current infrastructure push are obvious. The BMC elections are scheduled for later this year and the Assembly election will be in 2024. So, the Eknath Shinde-led government is doing everything possible to convince people that they are the best bet against the Uddhav Thackeray faction of the Shiv Sena, which has a steadfast grip on the municipal office.
Both the State and BMC budgets, which were announced in February, have allocated staggering amounts towards infrastructure. The BMC estimated that it will spend Rs.52,619.07 crore for 2023-24, the highest expenditure budget for any municipal body in the country. Of this, Rs.27,427 crore will be for capital expenditure alone, including Rs.3,553 crore for the coastal road project. The State Budget has allocated Rs.53,058.55 crore for infrastructure development, which focuses mainly on highways.
Meanwhile, the municipal corporation, said a source, distributed Rs.1,700 crore among corporators to be spent before the financial year ends on March 31. How better than cosmetic beautification to spend the money. “Hence, you will see walls being painted, road dividers being landscaped, and local gardens being cleaned,” said the source. The real problems like hospitals, public toilets, and garbage, which need urgent addressing, remain.
“Do they think they can convince us they are working for our welfare by wrapping hideous neon lights around light poles or installing a daft fountain made of plastic bottles at the start of Marine Drive?” asked Paresh Shah, a shop owner in Babulnath near Marine Drive, whose frontage is covered in rubble due to pavement work. He said the old pavement was perfectly fine and did not need to be redone. “Adding more concrete will be detrimental to drainage when the monsoons arrive,” he opined.
A lack of vision
Rahul Kadri, a Mumbai-based architect who is part of the architect collective, said transportation should be made more effective and affordable for commuters. “Unfortunately, whatever master plan there is lacks vision. There isn’t a holistic plan about what is it that we want. For instance, the plan does not address to what extent the quality of life of citizens will improve. Will you have more green spaces, schools, hospitals, clinics? None of it is planned the way other countries do it,” said Kadri.
He is critical of the coastal road. “If they are spending 12,000+ crore on the coastal road, it is only for the use of an average of 40,000 cars a day. Traffic data show that the number has not crossed 50,000,” he said. “Therefore, we go back to who is really benefitting. And whose money is being spent on all this. Investments needs returns. The coastal road is not going to do that.”
With regard to the metro, Kadri holds the view that metros are not just expensive to build but are also expensive for commuters as well. Mumbai’s local trains cost 20 paise a km. The metro is expected to cost 100 times that amount. He believes that the metro is effective when it is underground because it can be built in the most congested parts of the city. “However, because former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was in a hurry to show he could do something, he sanctioned 12 overground metro lines,” said Kadri. “As overground lines can only be built on wide roads, all the main highways have metros, which means people have to take an auto to the station. That defeats the purpose.”
More investment in BEST was the answer to the transport problems, he said. “At one tenth of the metro costs, we could have solved the problem with bus rapid transport systems. A minuscule percentage use cars. Ironically, 50 per cent walk to work. That receives the least attention. Footpaths first, BEST second and if we are to build metros, we have to build them underground. This network could have been built over the next 30-40 years.”
About the much-awaited trans-harbour link, he said the project originally included a train link. He pointed out that Navi Mumbai did not take off for two decades. Once the train link was installed, Navi Mumbai became extremely popular.
When contractors began to dig up roads and set up mammoth cranes and equipment at construction sites, environmentalists and affected citizens attempted to protest. Anand Pendharkar of SPROUTS said that Coastal Regulation Zone norms were relaxed to get the coastal road going and allowed mangroves to be destroyed, marine life that serves as traditional livelihood for the Kolis, Mumbai’s oldest community, to be affected, and thousands of trees to be cut down.
Activists shared some facts on the environmental impact of the various projects. The coastal road will reclaim 164 hectares of land, which includes taking in the sea, according to BMC data. Local fisherfolk said that oysters and crabs, a speciality of the Mumbai coast, would be killed. It is estimated that 1,50,000 mangrove trees on 19 hectares would have to be cleared for the bullet train project.
“These projects are so large and strongly politically backed that after a while, I think it was beyond citizens and activists to keep up protests,” said Abraham, of the architects’ body.
Architects and urban planners have presented the government recommendations for the Development Plan 2034. The proposals include the setting up of an urban design cell to address issues such as climate change and looking for competitive, environmentally sustainable bids for infrastructure projects. Said Abraham: “If we go to them as a collective, I believe we will have a strong voice. Many of us work on infra projects, within us as well there will be an awareness.”