I'm visiting someone in Breach Candy Hospital, looking out at the ocean and trying to imagine an 8-lane highway instead of the monsoon waves. I find myself doing that obsessively these days -- at Mahalaxmi, Haji Ali, Bandra, Juhu -- ever since I heard of the government's plan to reclaim land along the coast to construct their new mega project - the coastal road.
I only learnt about it a few weeks ago, in the beginning of August, when environmental activist Darryl D'Monte held a meeting about it for the students of Sophia College. My 18-year-old daughter Iyanah Bativala, horrified at the prospect of the city losing its seafronts, began a petition on Change.org. We only had three weeks to send in our objections -- the deadline imposed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation for a plan that would change this city irrevocably and forever.
"Mumbai is known as the city by the sea... By pandering to the miniscule minority of car owners, the government is about to make us the city by the road."
Darryl D'Monte, former resident editor of the Times of India and the chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India has along with his team of young architects and concerned journalists held protests and meetings to educate the public. I attended one such and learnt not only about the folly of the new road but also about alternatives that are cheaper, better and of course, not part of the grandiose plan.
Young architects and urban conservationists Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala who have been studying this issue for years showed us the alignment of this road. Hugging the coast will be the "green zone" of reclaimed land - actually a concrete plaza. Beyond that, the 34km 8-lane highway and then much further, out of reach, the sea wall and the sea.
Mumbai is known as the city by the sea. Countless generations of citizens, regardless of caste or class have enjoyed the many seafronts that line our western coast; lovers, children, senior citizens and exercise maniacs can be seen everyday at Marine Drive, Worli, Napean Sea Road, Dadar, Bandra, Juhu, where they sit, walk, chat, eat, run, shoot the breeze.
Even if one lives in the interiors in the most overcrowded of localities, there is always the sea to give relief. The monsoon sea, the calm winter sea, the sea breezes, the smell of the ocean are all part of every Mumbaikar's DNA. By pandering to the miniscule minority of car owners, the government is about to take all that away and make us the city by the road.
Elsewhere in the world cities are dismantling roads by rivers and seas and opening them up for pedestrians and bicycles. Only in India will public funds (Rs 12,000 crores) be spent on a road that will benefit a small percentage of the population - and that too without any public debate or discussion. A road which will damage the environment and destroy the mangroves that prevent floods and reduce the impact of tsunamis. Unrestricted building activity has already done considerable damage; this new road will be the final clincher.
Cars are the problem, not the solution, in our island city. Cars do not carry their own parking spaces with them. By pandering to car ownership instead of improving public transport we are condemned to more pollution and more traffic jammed streets. Rahul Kadri, an eminent architect, informed us that if we think our present bumper-to-bumper traffic is bad, wait till the connecter roads are in place; from the highway they will be coming into narrow roads and junctions and traffic will be so bad walking might be the only alternative.
"Why can't we use this money to make an underground subway system instead?"
Ratan Batliboi, another architect who has been in the forefront of infrastructural projects and urban design showed us his plan that he has been touting for decades for underground tunnels. Why can't we use this money to make an underground subway system instead? After all a city is considered developed not by how many cars the wealthy own but by how many of the wealthy use public transport. But there is not as much money to be made under the table with public transport. Reclamation of land? That's creating wealth out of thin air.
The Sealink took 10 years to complete, who knows how long this road will take. And whether people of my generation will even see it. But one thing is for sure -- life will be a misery if they even begin. The road outside my building in Breach Candy took six months for the BMC to dig and put together again. When there is such colossal inefficiency and corruption that we can't keep the city's roads free from potholes from one monsoon to the next, just imagine the state of affairs for the next 20 years once they begin?
What is frightening and suspect is that there are so few articles in the press about something that has such far-reaching consequences. They are going to steal the city's soul from under our noses and we won't even know it.