47-year-old Zoru Bhathena was born and raised in Mumbai, the most populous city in India famous for its Bollywood glitz. Only a few years ago, did Bhathena discover how Mumbai’s shores boast of astounding sea life. From Olive Ridley turtles and kaleidoscopic corals to dolphins, white-spotted whip rays, and ‘glow-in-the-dark’ algae, this marine population has somehow managed to withstand spewing industrial pollution.
“Everyone in Mumbai treats the ocean as a big dustbin, including the government and the people. Never in my life did I hear that the sea is nice,” says Bhathena.
The construction of the Coastal Road — what Bhathena scoffs as “the most expensive road in the world” at over Rs 12,950 crore ($1.5 billion) — is threatening to make this worse, submerging over 2,000 square meters (approximately half an acre) of land along Juhu Beach while eradicating miles of natural shorelines along the Arabian sea elsewhere. The 29.2 km (18.1 mi) long road is as wide as eight lanes in some parts, connecting the Marine Drive in south Mumbai to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (India’s longest sea bridge, which opened in 2010).
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Mumbai’s local governing body, claims that the Coastal Road, which is scheduled to be operational by May 2024, will slash commuting time by 70% and decrease fuel use by 34% annually, while creating much-needed green space from reclaimed land. The Bandra Collective, a group of urban planners and architects in Mumbai concerned about the myriad of environmental problems overlooked or neglected by the Coastal Road, counters that the project will only contribute to congestion issues. (The same problem is playing out across the U.S., where proposed highway expansions fail to meaningfully solve congestion due to induced demand.) Furthermore, despite allocating two out of its eight lanes for bus rapid transit, this megaproject will likely disproportionately benefit the ultra-minority of Mumbai’s population who drives: The Times of India reported in 2022 that there were around 1.2 million private cars in the city — in the most recent census conducted in 2011, the BMC already had almost 12.5 million residents.
Despite being a metropolis largely built from scratch through widespread land reclamation over centuries, Mumbai hasn’t seen large-scale additions to its coastline for over four decades due to national and local environmental policies that prohibited coastal reclamation — until now.
“Anytime the government does something wrong, they do it very quickly.”
After the Maharashtra state government reversed course in 2015, a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification dated 2019 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change shrunk the No Development Zone along the coast by three-quarters, from 200 meters (656 feet) to 50 (164 ft.) This happened despite over 90% of almost 4,000 public comments they received objecting to the changes, more last-minute changes being made before the final draft was published, and the failure to publish draft notification in the official gazette as required by law. The eased building restrictions in coastal cities came in the face of threats of sea level rise, storm surges, and stronger cyclones caused by climate change, but just in time for the bulk of the construction of the Coastal Road, which began in late 2018. “Anytime the government does something wrong, they do it very quickly,” Bhathena says.
Part of the 90 hectares (222.3 acres) of land reclaimed — when new land is built out of seas or some other body of water — is grabbing vital coastal regions once used for fishery activities. Thousands of fishermen and those working adjacent to aquatic livelihoods are now hanging by a thread. Many afflicted are koli, already considered a low-caste in India. They’re left with minimal support, compensation, or alternative livelihoods, especially after one of the 2019 amendments stripped them of protection from forced resettlement.
“The Mumbai Coastal Road (MCR) project aimed at reducing flood risk and protecting against [sea-level rise] will potentially cause damages to intertidal fauna and flora and local fishing livelihoods.”
Like Bhathena, the world’s foremost climate experts are alarmed by the megaproject. The 2022 IPCC Sixth Assessment Report uses the Coastal Road as a poster child for “maladaptive” infrastructural intervention: “The Mumbai Coastal Road (MCR) project aimed at reducing flood risk and protecting against [sea-level rise] will potentially cause damages to intertidal fauna and flora and local fishing livelihoods.”
Bhathena is determined to question why the coast must be destroyed to build this road. How has the government and the city’s millions upon millions of people become so detached from their environment? “We aren't living in the 1800s,” he tells me. To him, with such an astronomical construction budget, the lack of bridges or stilts to protect sections of the coast is baffling.
One afternoon in late December, on the other side of the Coastal road construction site opposite the vaunted halls of the National Sports Club of India’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Indoor Stadium, Jamadar Haji Ali is helping set up a public meeting on coastal biodiversity in the glow of sherbet-colored light along Lotus Jetty. The senior coordinator of the environmental advocacy organization DSP Foundation, he has been working to unionize communities of disempowered fishermen under one association–– the Vanchit Macchimaar Haji Ali Cooperative Society. Lotus Jetty is one of the most popular spaces where Mumbai’s artisanal fishers dock their boats but has become a key construction site for this massive infrastructural project.
The cooperative currently represents over 300 families — besides Kolis, there are also fishers who are Muslim, Christian, and of the Agri caste. This is the first forum ever hosted at Lotus Jetty, aimed to facilitate interactions between artisanal fishers with authorities. This public meeting also spreads awareness: not only are fishers being forced out of stretches of coastline where they’ve harvested for generations, but pollution, unsustainable (and often illegal) fishing practices, and climate change contribute to dwindling catches.
Beyond the immediate serenity of Lotus, staccatoed by small fishing boats and flocks of seabirds, are a fleet of construction cranes and tractors. It’s grounds for one of the final stands between small-scale fisher folks and the encroaching arm of development.
In 2020, the local police, BMC, maritime board, and urban development ministry threatened to shut down Lotus Jetty. One day a notice board appeared out of the blue, stating that the jetty doesn’t belong to any fishers; those caught docking their boats there would be fined. Those who complained to local police about how devastating construction activities were to their livelihoods even faced ‘threats and abuses,’ and were scolded for ‘disturbing’ the government’s job, alleges Ali. DSP helped bring this case of disrupted livelihoods to the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court of India, where the case is currently stalling.
DSP has been working to register these disparate fishers under an official fishing cooperative with the Ministry of Fisheries. This process, which should have lasted 60 days, dragged into three years. Ali believes that delays to this process were deliberate. On September 12th, 2022, they were finally registered after a 21-day hunger strike conducted by the fisherfolk at Lotus Jetty in Worli. DSP now represents more than one hundred fishermen.
“This is the only way that any sort of compensation could be remitted,” Ali tells me. “If the fishermen are joined together and collectively cite how their livelihoods have been destroyed with the construction.”
Despite an ongoing lawsuit at the National Green Tribunal that seeks to overturn the CRZ notification of 2019, and a planned facelift of a major Koli fishing village to boost tourism, the areas where the Kolis used to park their boats and dry fish have been completely flooded. A study conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) for BMC showed that the incomes and daily catch of marginal fisherfolk have reduced by half since the construction of the Coastal Road. 41-year-old Hemant Koli, another fisher, believes that the government should take action. “We don’t have any other options, we’re totally dependent on the ocean.”
And after years of organizing, impacted Kolis are finally seeing some compensation from the BMC for their loss of livelihoods. The BMC announced in April that annual installments up to Rs 4.56 lakh ($5560) will be handed out over the next several years beginning later this year. But there’s a catch: since most small-scale fishermen work informally, they have no paper trail of how much fish or crabs they catch in a year or how much money they make to establish claims. As a result, an official census only counted 120 affected persons in Lotus Jetty.
“This is the only way that any sort of compensation could be remitted, if the fishermen are joined together and collectively cite how their livelihoods have been destroyed with the construction.”
70-year-old Lilabai Koshinath Koli is one of the ladies in attendance at the public forum. Each day she commutes from the small village of Mahul — declared by VICE News as “the Mumbai neighborhood so polluted it’s been declared unfit for human habitation” — to harvest oysters and clams, taking three hours by public transit to complete the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) round trip.
Lilabai has done this work since childhood with the same community of 60-70 women. They look out for one another amongst the slippery, sharp coastal rocks, share lunchboxes, and gossip. She’s proud of her traditional job, one rooted in her heritage, her very name — ironically, things that the Coastal Road, advertised to speed up her commute, would literally and metaphorically bury. And all she will get in return is a minimum annual compensation of Rs 97,000 ($1,180), 40% of the state’s per capita income.
That is if she could produce the documentation to justify her existence beneath the shadows cast by flyovers and piles.