Virtual Impact Assessment of the Coastal Road Project in Mumbai

Rajneesh

It is not still too late to reconsider

A 35.6-km Coastal Road has been planned along the west coastline of Mumbai to provide a freeway linking south Mumbai with western suburbs. It is expected to reduce traffic congestion in the western suburbs of Mumbai. Today, the Western Express Highway (WEH) carries over 60% of the city’s traffic. The Coastal Road project will take this load off the WEH.

The nodal agency for this Project is the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). BMC has proposed a 10-km long underground tunnel at two locations starting from Nariman Point to Priyadarshani Park and from Juhu to Versova. The road will include 22 interchanges, entry and exit points, and lanes dedicated to Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). The road is estimated to cost Rs 120,000 million. The Project will be implemented in phases.

Lately, I have been reading and following up the discussions related to this Project.  As an environmental professional, I have been always hounded at the Page 3 Parties with a question “Dr Modak, Is this Coastal Project any Good for Mumbai?” I have been having a tough time to skirt my way through as there is no such answer like “Yes” or “No” to this complex Project. The best is to give an ambiguous response like “It depends” and that’s what I have been saying in all these parties.

Statements made by the Chief Minister of the Government of Maharashtra, Commissioner of BMC and the Project Consultants have been very positive, emphasizing Project’s need and the benefits it would lead to. Apart from reducing traffic congestion, the argument is made on reduction in air pollution and thereby protecting Mumbaikar’s health. The Environmental NGOs and professionals, especially architects and nature lovers are however very upset with the very project concept – and its configuration. On the issue of air pollution, many are convinced that we need to worry more about the air emissions resulting from the open burning of the garbage and fires at the dumping ground in Deonar. As most cars are fitted with AC today, air emissions from the traffic should not be of much concern.

The Coastal Road project has received Environmental Clearance (EC) from the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). In this process, BMC received more than 700 suggestions and objections from citizens, activists and fishermen. I believe that the project consultants have made every attempt to minimize issues related to land restoration, flooding, mangroves and extent of visual intrusion. I don’t know whether answers to the 700 + questions are posted on BMC’s website.

But indeed all these impacts cannot be fully neutralized. Citizens will have to compromise between these impacts against the benefit of efficient transportation in the north-south corridor saving a considerable travel time, reducing consumption of fuel and thus air emissions to the environment. The choice is therefore so hard to make and is as difficult to decide whether to continue to stay in Mumbai!

The stretch of the Coastal Road that passes through the suburban areas of Khar, Juhu, and Versova are the problem areas for the BMC. In these areas, there are a lot of mangroves. There is also a stiff opposition from the fishermen community of the fishing villages of Khar Danda and Mora. The MoEFCC in its EC has mandated that if there is any destruction of mangroves, then the agency will have to replant three times the number of mangroves lost. Is three an appropriate number? And will such a kind of “off-set” compensation really help? These are questions that will remain unanswered.

I thought of meeting my Professor friend on a Sunday morning for a coffee and get his views on the Coastal Road project. Professor however had another idea. “Let us drive on the Coastal Road itself and you will experience the change” he said.

I was shocked.

“Sir, it will take next 6 years to complete the Project. Are you aware that the Project includes reclamation and tunneling components that are not easy to implement. I am sure there will be “Project Roko Andolans” as well that will stall or delay some of the sensitive sections of the Project”

The Professor smiled.

“I am going to take you in my special simulator van that has an ability to do Virtual Impact Assessment (VIA). As we will drive along the proposed route of the Coastal Road Project, the Simulator based on VIA will show us the future i.e. how will the environment be during construction and operation phase of the Project”

I was astonished. “That is unbelievable! What is this VIA you talking about?”

“It’s a new and emerging technique” Professor said briefly.

I reached at the MLA Hostel at the Nariman Point at 9 am. A large size Van was parked at the Gate and Professor with his Cigar was waiting outside for me.

Xenova-Terryman-Future-electric-vehicle-011

(Professors Van with VIA – sourced from http://psipunk.com/category/future-trucks/page/4/)

“Get in” he said with all the excitement while extinguishing his Cigar

The interior of the Van was like a spacecraft with a large screen and a dashboard. Professor gave me special pair of spectacles to wear that had the ability of 3D vision but more importantly had the “power” to view the Present and the “Future”.  The dashboard had buttons to generate scenarios.

We began the journey and soon entered the tunnel underneath the Marine Drive that went all the way through the Malabar Hill reservoir. I heard a symphony of violins. The Professor said that this is the music coming from one of the concerts at the NCPA. “When anyone will pass through the Tunnel, the music as live at the NCPA will be relayed – of course if you want to – just to entertain. Professor said

“So soothing and so thoughtful of you” I said. The tunnel journey was great with bright illumination of lights reflecting on the sheets of water on the wall, flowing due to the unstoppable leaks formed in the Malabar Hill reservoir during construction.

We reached Haji Ali in no time.  In the maze of flyovers constructed there I couldn’t figure out where the Mosque was. Professor was quiet “Cannot do much” He said “We are aware of this problem and we have apologized in writing for the visual intrusion we have created. But you see this affects only a small fraction of city’s population. We must see benefit to the city as a whole. Note that we have also impacted the Mahalaxmi temple, equally – so it’s all fair in that sense.

There was hardly any traffic on the Coastal Road. The cars I could see were saloon type not within the reach of a common person. I guess the common person was still hanging outside the packed local railway compartment. Professor said that the toll to use the Coastal Road was rather expensive – and it had to be as there was nearly 50% cost overrun from the original budget of Rs. 120,000 million. There was also an imposition to use Dutch consultants and Japanese contractors as Government of Maharashtra had mobilized funding from the Netherlands and JICA. That had turned out to be a bad deal – rather costly. Besides very few were really interested to travel from MLA hostel to Malad

I saw a car overtaking us near Worli and saw a politician looking like person sitting in the front seat. “He is Mr. Shaikh, MLA from Malad (West)”, Professor said. Mr. Shaikh is a regular user of the Coastal Road. It takes him now only 35 minutes to reach from residence to MLA Hostel so that he can wake up late in the morning. Mr. Shaikh is a very happy commuter of the Coastal Road” Professor was substantiating. Apparently this was one of the important factors of motivation for Mr. Shaikh to support the Coastal Road Project and help BMC to resolve the protests from the fishermen. I am very sure that this was not true.

When we were reaching Bandra, we crossed over the Mahim Fort. Mahim Fort is a magnificent island fort of historical importance built by the Portuguese some 900 years ago.

Mahim_Fort_12

The Mahim Fort

“Aha, here you will see the power of technology”. Professor said triumphantly.

We took a diversion and exited the Coastal Road and reached the Mahim Fort. The Coastal Road on stilt was just in the proximity blocking the magnificent sea view that we used to see.

When we entered the Fort, I saw several “kiosks” put around. The Professor took me to one of “kiosks” and pressed few buttons. A huge screen got created that showed me an uninterrupted view of the sea, the rocks with young couples sitting and smooching around and the “khare dane walas” (those selling roasted groundnuts) – an aroma of a mix of sea spray and untreated sewage also came around! And there was a gusty wind – perhaps through a clever wind generator. The outcome was just like the situation as it “used to be”!

“Well we kind of recorded the baseline scenario around the Mahim Fort – did meters of digital photography – then used laser technology to create the baseline virtually in the sky so that you can get the same experience as before (the sound, wind, light and smell blended together)” – Professor was explaining.

“This is just amazing – first of all half the population of Mumbai does not know much about the Mahim Fort, then a very small percentage of people visit – majority of them are not monument lovers but are just lovers who are looking for a place to hide – and its so thoughtful of you that you created this virtual world just to keep your promise to minimize the adverse impacts of visual intrusion. Hats off to you Professor and you have given  fitting response to objections by Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala” I couldn’t resist but say this in all emotions.

We got back on the Coastal Road and were soon passing over the stretches of Khar danda and Juhu. This was supposed to be the mangrove affected area. We were on the elevated or stilt section barricaded by the noise barriers (may be intentionally so that we don’t see the degraded and depleted patches of the mangroves) and so I could not understand the status of the mangroves. Before the Professor could stop me, I pressed the button on the simulator dashboard and commanded the scene under the stilt road in the Monsoon of 2021. I saw a picture on the big screen of cars weeding through the floods, sea ingresing with severe coastal erosion happening on the Juhu beach. Well Professor said “We did the best we could. Some of our climate related predictions were not accurate and three times plantation idea was not effective”

deadmangroves

Mangroves in the Coffins

A car is submerged amidst water-logged houses in a rain-hit area of Chennai on November 17, 2015. India has deployed the army and air force to rescue flood-hit residents in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where at least 71 people have died in around a week of torrential rains. AFP PHOTO / AFP / STR

Cars in the Floods 

 

I was silent

When we finished our journey at Malad, I asked the Professor “So Professor – is the Coastal Road Project any good?”

Professor lit his cigar and said “Dr Modak, It all depends


 

In India, we continue to focus on Project level Environmental Impact Assessments. When we talk about area wide interventions, we need to elevate our thinking from Project level to Regional Impact Assessment (REA).

The REAs need to be triggered through a comprehensive Environmental and Social Policy Framework (ESPF). Agencies like BMC and MMRDA or MSRTC need to come together and establish ESPF that guides infrastructure development in a 3600 and sustainable perspective.  The Projects get identified only when all alternatives are examined (both strategic and operational) and Project EIAs are conducted downstream guided by an overarching ESPF that is developed through stakeholder consultation. What we need to demand is the creation and operation of a regional ESPF.

I spoke at S.D.VAIDYA Lecture Series organized by Indian Society of Landscape Architects (ISOLA) titled ‘MUMBAI: ON A ROAD TO KNOW WHERE?’ on 28th of November, 2015. You may like to view this presentation related to the Coastal Road project and the ESPF at http://www.slideshare.net/EkonnectKnowledgeFoundation


(cover image sourced from http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1447055)

 

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