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While The PM Tweets About Climate Change, Mumbai’s Environment Is Being Ravaged For The Metro

An environmental disaster in the making.

05/06/2017 11:42 AM IST | Updated 05/06/2017 3:16 PM IST
Stringer India / Reuters

Japan got its first underground metro in the 1920s. Nearly a century later Mumbai is scheduled to receive its first metro by 2020. Young Mumbaikars, who have lived and travelled abroad and experienced commuting by metro, were most thrilled at the news of having their own. After all it was high time, right?

That's what I thought until a few days ago when the distant noise of chainsaws caught my attention along with other people in my neighbourhood of Churchgate. A crew of men were slicing away at the bark of a 200-year-old banyan tree—it was painful to watch. I never realised we could be so connected to our trees until that day; I felt violated.

[T]he government has decided that it is going to build the metro even if it means bypassing laws and endangering citizens.

In Mumbai, we don't have the luxury of private gardens or public parks filled with trees, the song of birds, fluttering butterflies, et al. We live in apartments and can barely afford the minimum nature required for survival. The godlike trees that line the sidewalks equip us with cooler summers and are a relief for the eyes and the soul.

It all began in December 2016 with a newspaper mention that some trees would be cut for the metro. Some curious citizens enquired with the authorities and were told 5000 trees could go.

During the Congress government's tenure, a monorail project had been initiated to boost the connectivity of the existing monorail, and harbour lines were extended, but the projects have been abandoned by the BJP government for unknown reasons.

Subsequently, a metro project proposed in the 1960s, was taken up as the next big thing. (In the 1980s, a plan was introduced to build the metro under the already existing railway system in order to save space and lessen inconvenience to citizens but that didn't take off). That wouldn't be a bad idea to implement today now, would it?

Bad design

Zoru, a resident of Khar, who has filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court, explains that the plan of the Mumbai Metro is badly designed—recreational spaces such as parks and open grounds that have the most number of trees, have been marked as future metro stations. "No thought has gone into planning and considering least damage scenarios where trees and the environment are concerned," he says.

Robin Jaisinghani, a resident of Cuffe Parade, says the alignment of stations and tracks looks haphazard and mindless. And Cuffe Parade has now lost its garden of 400 trees.

"There was no need to cut down all those trees, if they had done it the right way they could've saved at least 350," he says.

The MMRC is using outdated equipment and methods for construction instead of the commonly used NATM (New Austrian Tunnelling Method)... that would not require all the trees to be cut along the path.

The MMRC is also using outdated equipment and methods for construction instead of the commonly used NATM (New Austrian Tunnelling Method), which has been used for building underground metros since the 60s. The NATM only requires a hole to be dug at either end of the road and one can burrow through it to create a tunnel that would not require all the trees to be cut along the path. Instead, MMRC is using the primitive cut-open method.

According to Jaisinghani, the Executive Director of Planning at MMRC, R. Ramana, said during a visit that the authority didn't have the resources to save the trees.

Another technicality shows that the area required to build the stations is 60 metres by 25 metres and stations of this size are being built at locations like DN Road. So why are trees being cut on both sides of the 150-metre-wide Churchgate Road when it can clearly be avoided?

There are other rules that are being flouted. One is a Supreme Court ruling that mandates that no construction should be carried out in residential areas from 10pm until 6am, but the loud noise of the ancient equipment in deployment—which easily exceeds 90db— can be heard into the wee hours of the night (any noise above 80db is said to be harmful to humans).

The authorities don't seem to have environmental permissions either, at least according to a letter sent by the State Environment Impact Authority to the MMRCL dated 21st April 2017. In addition, the construction site falls under the Coastal Regulation Zone, which needs special permissions as it involves mining of rock and substrata material.

Dangerous waste

It's also important to note that the construction will likely generate 10.5 million cubic metres of debris, requiring land that is equivalent to more than 50 football fields, and over 5 metres high, for disposal. However, the MMRCL hasn't shared plans of its disposal. One can assume it might just land up in the sea like everything else does, and be washed up by the lashing rains come monsoon season.

[T]he construction will likely generate 10.5 million cubic metres of debris, requiring land that is equivalent to more than 50 football fields, and over 5 metres high, for disposal.

The underground water table may also be severely affected with trees gone, and contamination by seawater cannot be ruled out. In a city that already suffers from potable water shortage this could be dangerous.

While transplantation was promised by the MMRC, an investigation by environmentalists revealed one of the locations was a saltwater-logged plot on which trees would not have survived. It's safe to assume, then, the intention to transplant was just a formality on a piece of paper.

No compensation has been declared for residents or shop owners living and working near the barricaded construction sites, and whose lives and businesses will be disrupted until 2020.

The mammoth ₹23,000 crore project, which is 750 crores per km to put it into perspective, is partially being funded by the Japanese who regard trees to be sacred (irony right there) and is also being funded by the state that has huge debts.

How can Mumbai, which is already notorious for its monsoon flooding, see an "underground" metro survive the floods?

Quite simply, the government has decided that it is going to build the metro even if it means bypassing laws and endangering citizens. All this while the PM tweets about climate change from Paris.

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