Two years after the Mumbai Port Trust was ordered to empty imported coal from what used to be a football ground, it won the first edition of a football tournament at the same ground on Friday held to celebrate the locality becoming free of coal dust pollution. The port trust and Mazgaon XI squared off in the finals of the first Haji Bunder Friendly Football Tournament at a field near the Indian Maritime University (IMU) and the Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Advanced Maritime Studies and Research in Sewri on Friday evening. At the end of two goal-less 20-minute halves, the port trust blanked Mazgaon 3-0 in the penalty shootout, thanks largely to its goalkeeper who saved two spot-kicks and made two other vital blocks in regular time.
With its uneven patches of grass, ditches and unkempt boundaries, the ground is nowhere close to professional standards, but is a sign of how much it has changed in the past two years. Locals call it a great improvement. “When the tournament began in August, the rains had made the surface very hard to play on. But after the monsoon, the port trust filled the holes with earth and brought in rollers,” said Anjesh Yadav, who lives in Indira Nagar, a slum colony located at Haji Bunder.
Yadav and his friends, who play for local outfit Indira Nagar Strikers, would go to St Xavier’s ground in Parel for practice before their neighbourhood ground was gradually cleaned and turned into a playable surface. By this time next year though, Parel should be far from their minds once the port trust spruces up the ground. “We have got the chairman of the port trust to commit that the ground will be made into a world-class football ground by next year, with a proper surface, lighting and seating,” said Vice Admiral (retd) I C Rao, a member of NGO Apli Mumbai, which organised the tournament.
Mumbai Port Trust Chairman Sanjay Bhatia said the ground would eventually be managed by the IMU. “This is the start of the Eastern Seafront project. A few years ago, it would not have been imaginable that football would be played here,” he added. In October 2015, the port trust stopped handling coal at Haji Bunder upon directions from the Bombay High Court after a public interest litigation filed by Aam Aadmi Party’s Meera Sanyal and Rao pointed out that 19 acres of land in Haji Bunder was covered with 1.5 lakh metric tonnes of imported coal, which had adverse effects on health. Residents of Indira Nagar and students at the maritime universities, who have benefited the most from the locality’s clean-up, formed two of the eight teams that contested the tournament. Both teams crashed out in the semi-finals, foiling the possibility of an ideal final.
The Indira Nagar Strikers crashed out in agonising fashion, losing 3-2 in penalty shootout to Mazgaon. Sixteen-year-old Yadav, whose team played its first-ever tournament, said the experience was fun. “As an Under-18 team playing against teams with older and experienced players, we did well to reach the semis,” said the first-year science student at Sion’s SIWS college.
He added that the absence of trucks piled high with coal driving through Haji Bunder’s main road had made a difference to the health of locals. “Our homes would be covered with coal dust before this. Now we have clean air to breathe and can play freely in the open without the fear of falling sick,” he said.
Rao said the change was palpable as less traffic and the sea breeze had transformed Haji Bunder, which previously had among the worst air qualities. “The biggest change seen here is, grass now grows on plots filled with coal two years ago. This used to be a great football ground 50 years ago. It should go back to being that,” said Rao.