Environment

Relocating corals off Mumbai for a coastal road project

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Work under way on a 9.98-km-stretch, between Marine Drive and the Bandra-Worli sea link, of the Mumbai coastal road. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

The Maharashtra government relocates coral colonies on the Mumbai coast to begin work on the 29-kilometre-long road project, but green activists wonder if the endangered corals will survive in their new location.

JUST before the start of the monsoon season in 2019, marine biologists from the Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra completed a four-month-long study for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to identify the varieties of coral in eight locations along the Mumbai coastline. The locations —Juhu, Carter Road, Bandra Bandstand, Worli Sea Face, Napean Sea Road, Marine Drive and Geeta Nagar in Colaba—were along the route of a 29.2-kilometre-long coastal road that is touted as a solution to the city’s traffic congestion.

The eight-lane highway will connect the northern suburb of Kandivali to the southern end of the city at Marine Drive. It will be on stilts in the section it traverses the sea. The road will be built partly on land reclaimed for the purpose. Apart from destroying intertidal zones and the flora and fauna, the extent of land reclamation is seen as something that will benefit builders in land-starved Mumbai. The BMC is constructing a 9.98-km section of the coastal road from Marine Drive to the Bandra-Worli sea link. It is on this stretch that the corals will be uprooted first. From January to April scientists of the Foundation, an autonomous body that assists the State government in coastal marine conservation, scoured the rocky, intertidal zone observing tidal action in the bay area, the rock strata, the changing currents, the salinity levels and other indicators of coral life.
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The team identified 11 species of corals—nine stony, or hard, corals, and two soft corals—growing woody cores. Five species of stony corals belonged to the Rhizangiidae family, one each to Caryophylliidae and Dendrophylliidae, two were reef-building corals of the Siderastreidae family, commonly known as the false pillow coral, while one species was from the Poritidae family, Goniopora. Both the soft corals belong to the Gorgoniidae family. The study found that the Haji Ali section, where land is being reclaimed, has reef-building coral species spread over about 30 rocks among the tidal pools. The other eight areas had smaller colonies of corals.

Corals are an endangered marine species and protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Union Environment Ministry and the Maharashtra government gave permission to translocate the coral colonies instead of burying them during the reclamation process. It was hoped that the endangered status of the corals would have persuaded the government to think of some creative engineering in road construction so that the corals could have remained at their original site, but that was not to be. The Haji Ali and Worli corals may not be like the spectacular reef corals of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the Maldives but the point is that they are part of an endangered family, and the fact that they have grown in the Mumbai coast indicates the suitability of the site for coral life.

The process of shifting the corals began on November 12. The translocation was monitored by the State Mangrove Cell of the office of the Conservator of Forests, but the actual translocation was carried out by the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography. To the untrained eye, the process would have seemed like the shifting of construction rubble. Large rocks bearing corals were dislodged and placed in the water so that they remained in their colony formation and stayed moist until it was time to take them to their new location at the southern end of Mumbai island. They were tagged so that the colonies stayed together even in their new location and could be monitored through the coming months. Smaller isolated corals were removed from the rocks for relocation at different points around the site itself. The translocation process was completed within a week.
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The procedure of translocating corals is still in its infancy the world over. Globally, corals are translocated in view of coastal construction projects, coral bleaching caused by global warming and climate change, and polluted habitats. The greatest danger in translocation seems to be the period when they are uprooted and ferried to the new habitat. That is when the most fatalities are said to occur. It is believed that there is good chance of the corals growing in their new location if all the parameters are similar to those in their original habitat.

The translocation of coral colonies in Mumbai has reaffirmed an unfortunate reality: The government is continuing its commitment to giant road and transport projects as a solution to traffic and travel issues. Twenty-five years ago, when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine first came to power, one of its first projects was aimed at addressing the city’s traffic woes. The coalition government built 55 flyovers during its term in office. They helped ease long-distance commute between the suburbs and the city but local traffic patterns became a nightmare and continue to be so.

Fascination for mega projects

Sadly, that was the start of governments’ fascination with mega transport network projects. For the past three years, Mumbai has been reeling under the coastal road and metro rail projects. The destruction caused by the metro rail project has been immeasurable. From decimating the city’s green cover to destabilising foundations of old buildings to threatening the economies of small businesses because access to them was blocked by huge barricades. What makes it worse is that the government went ahead with the project when a more feasible alternative of upgrading the existing local rail network on land already owned by the Railways was available.

It has been proved time and again that building more roads is not the answer to ease traffic congestion. The Bandra-Worli sea link bridge did not solve traffic congestion. Neither did the eastern freeway. The monorail, which is severely under-utilised, is actually suffering losses. But its construction led to a boom in real estate and gave rise to smaller subsidiary infrastructure projects along its route. The humongous projects seem to aid in selling the city to infrastructure companies or real estate businesses.
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Translocation of living organisms is not just a matter of uprooting them and placing them at a new site. When the Pune-Ahmednagar highway was broadened about eight years ago, century-old neem, peepal and other avenue trees were uprooted and planted in newly dug pits. Needless to say, the trees did not survive. Several palm trees were dug up in similar fashion when Mumbai’s famed Marine Drive was repaved. The palms were replanted at the Oval maidan, but almost all the trees died. Despite all these previous failed efforts, there was great fanfare about replanting some of the thousands of trees uprooted for the metro rail project. This was not done with the aim of conservation but to quell the growing protests against the mindless destruction of the city’s green cover. Not all the trees survived.

It will be some months before the fate of the translocated corals is known. Some marine biologists feel the corals will adapt to their new locations since it is practically like a backyard relocation. But the bigger question is whether these projects are really solving the problems they are meant to solve?
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