Coastal Road Projects Don't Just Damage the Environment – They Are Also Outdated

Date: 31 December 2020.
Author: Rahul Kadri

In December 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) made a concerning amendment to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws, which regulate activities and development in coastal areas. This allowed, for the first time, construction of roads by way of reclamation (the process of creating new land from oceans, rivers or lakes by filling the area with rock, sand, and/or cement concrete) anywhere along India’s 7500-km-long coastline without an environmental clearance, albeit only in “exceptional cases,” which were, interestingly, left undefined.

The amendment, which came as a result of an unprecedented recommendation from the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA), effectively nullifies the original CRZ notification, which was issued in 1991 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, as well as the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, ignoring the eco-sensitive nature of the intertidal zone. Land filling, unquestionably, desecrates fragile coastal ecosystems; it destroys coral reefs and crucial fish spawning grounds and disrupts marine food chains, which in turn impacts adversely the local fishery communities and economies dependent on them. Additionally, it creates a dam between the city and the water body, affecting natural storm-water drainage patterns and increasing the threat of flooding manifold.

Five years on, however, despite receiving severe criticism from environmentalists and being challenged in the Supreme Court, the ill-conceived amendment lives on. Municipal corporations looking to develop infrastructure have lapped up this relatively easier solution - coastal lands are not privately owned - and several projects are in the works across the country today. Daman has a brand new coastal highway while the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) INR 12,700-crore ‘Coastal Road’ in Mumbai, the project which inadvertently birthed the amendment, continues to progress unabated. “Exceptional cases” galore, one might think.

The amendment’s far-reaching effects are becoming increasingly apparent too - our coasts have been reduced to a playground for commercial real estate development with blatant disregard for the environment. For instance, under just the first phase of the project in Mumbai, a barely 10-km-long coastal road from Marine Drive to Worli, the BMC is reclaiming an estimated 90 hectares of land from the Arabian Sea - this urban planner would argue that it needs barely 20 - and has translocated entire coral colonies (Schedule I protected species), an exercise that has been questioned by marine biologists. What kind of precedent are we setting for urban development in the country?

Are we designing for people, or cars?

These projects also point to a larger problem that continues to plague development thinking in India today: an overinvestment in creating infrastructure for cars - a vestige, no doubt, of Industrial and Post-Industrial urban planning models from the West. In most Indian cities, however, private cars account for a minimal percentage of daily trips despite their high vehicular share, with an overwhelming majority of people using public transport or walking as a means of mobility. Consequently, such car-oriented developments take away both investment and space from mass-transit modes such as buses and railways, and non-motorised private-transit modes like cycling and walking, as well as from the creation of green and open spaces. The BMC project, for instance, is an abject waste of public money in a city where over 70 percent of the population walks to work or uses public transport and less than 10 percent uses private vehicles.

Imagine, instead, if the INR 12,700 crores earmarked for the Coastal Road, the most expensive road per kilometre in India, were redirected instead to Mumbai’s public transit system - building an underground metro network, reinforcing the BEST bus fleet, and repairing and widening footpaths for pedestrians?

Ideally, all our cities and towns should be more walkable. We need to work on developing high-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods where one could access all essentials within a 500-metre radius from the doorstep: self-sufficient units with all public facilities and amenities available locally - from schools and hospitals to gardens to spaces for weekly farmer markets and waste segregation and recycling; units that could be administered with ease and where inhabitants would be able to walk or cycle to work, to school, to shop, and to play. Such ‘smart neighbourhoods’ would reduce travel times and the need for regular inter-neighbourhood journeys, and by corollary, the high levels of carbon emissions and pollution in our cities today. Additionally, they would also ensure optimisation of resources and services, effective costing, and reduce wastage. Paris is already testing this idea and working on becoming a “15-minute city” by creating cycle lanes and discouraging car use by taking off over 60,000 on-street parking spots and replacing them with green space and playgrounds instead. So are Melbourne and Milan.

We can also look to history for examples. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Boston buried into tunnels a freeway it had erected along its coast in the 50s, reclaiming the space for the city and its people in the form of public spaces and gardens. The mistake that the American city made in the last century, we might be making now. Let us ensure that our coasts don’t become thoroughfares but remain destinations - gentle and quiet places to reflect, engage, and be with nature.