Cranes, dumpers, trucks and other heavy equipment have replaced the sunset view, all the way from Chowpatty beach to Worli. Behind yellow barricades are hundreds of workers beavering away round the clock at several of Mumbai’s iconic spots — Haji Ali, Breach Candy, Napean Sea Road and Marine Lines — to complete an infrastructure project that, at the very least, promises to change the face of the Mumbai coast at its southern tip.
The road, a 10.58-km stretch starting from the Marine Drive promenade to the Worli-end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is part of the larger Mumbai Coastal Road Project that is proposed to link Marine Drive to Kandivali — an ambitious plan to link South Mumbai with North with a toll-free freeway that is expected to ease up traffic in one of the most congested cities in the world.
While work on a section of the northern half of the Coastal Road — from Bandra to Versova — has begun too, it’s the southern part that is attracting attention. This entire 10.58-km stretch from Marine Drive to the Worli Sea link will include, besides the road itself — much of it to be built on land reclaimed from the sea — complex interchanges, a road bridge, parks and promenades. But the most challenging segment is from Marine Drive to Girgaon Chowpatty, where the road will run a kilometre or so under the sea, through a set of twin tunnels. For the Shiv Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is funding the project, this is as big as it gets — the tunnel, once ready, will be India’s first undersea road tunnel.
The scale, cost and ambition of this
Rs 12,721-crore stretch are all evident: both at the vast worksites scooped out beside the Arabian Sea, and the 17 No-Objection Certificates, protests and court battles it has seen.
The Coastal Road, which is expected to cut down travel time in one of the most congested cities in the world, is the most ambitious infrastructure project Mumbai has seen in recent times. A prestige project for the Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, the most challenging segment of the road is the stretch running under the sea — a first for India. But there are concerns being raised on the impact the road and its construction will have on marine life and livelihoods of fishing communities along the coast.
This stretch has been divided into three parts — from Princess Street flyover at Marine Drive to Priyadarshini Park on Malabar Hill; from there to Baroda Palace (near Haji Ali); and the last from Baroda Palace to the Worli-end of the Sea Link. The BMC has awarded the contract for construction for the first and second part of the road to L&T, while the last is a joint venture between Hindustan Construction Company and Hyundai Development Corporation.
After years of preparatory work, in October 2018, in what was billed as the formal start of construction of the Coastal Road, the BMC began work on reclaiming 111 hectares from the sea. So far, the civic body has completed about 80 hectares. Once completed, Mumbai’s sea coast will extend 100 metres into the sea.
As a truckload of debris is unloaded on the Haji Ali pathway, Vishal Thombare, an executive engineer with the Coastal Road, says, “We are confident of completing the project before 2023 — provided no one goes to court.”
Ashwini Bhide, Additional Municipal Commissioner in the BMC who heads the Coastal Road Department, said, “The project is crucial to reduce travel time from the southern tip of Mumbai to the northern side. The fuel consumption will come down by 35% once it is in use. The project will work like a dyke to prevent intake of sea water. Despite limitations such as Covid-19 in the last eight to nine months, work has progressed pretty well.”
Besides easing traffic congestion, the BMC has been claiming that the reclamation will provide the city some much-needed open space, with 70 hectares of green area to be added in the form of parks, gardens, amphitheatres, cycling tracks, walkways and a butterfly garden. Besides, there will be four underground parking areas along the Coastal Road to accommodate about 2,000 vehicles.
The road will also have Mumbai’s first dedicated Bus Rapid Transport System to strengthen public transport.
A tunnel and land reclaimed
At Priyadarshini Park on Napean Sea Road, India’s biggest Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) is digging 70 metres under Malabar Hill, the city’s most expensive real estate.
The area, which now resembles a dug-up stadium, is the starting point of a 2.07-km tunnel — about a km of it under the sea — that will run all the way to a small strip of sand called Chhoti Chowpatty at Marine Drive, close to the landmark Girgaon Chowpatty beach.
In the defeaning roar of the TBM as it works its way deep below the city, Thombre says, “If you are tunneling, there is always the risk of water seepage or a cave-in. While operating the machine, we have to maintain pressure equal to the surface.”
Thombre says the TBM could face some challenges as it moves ahead.
For one, the rock and soil strata below Malabar Hill can be highly unpredictable. “If the strata is rocky, then tunneling is easier but in case of loose strata, it can be challenging,” says an engineer from L&T.
Also, after Malabar Hill, the soil strata of the undersea segment is expected to be marine sand, which could slow down the speed of the TBM.
Besides the tunnel, the complexity involved in the project is the land that needs to be reclaimed.
From Malabar Hill to the Sea Link, the Coastal Road will mostly be built on reclaimed land, around 50-70 meters inside the sea. The Sunday Express drove along this stretch that’s still work in progress, all the way up to Haji Ali. It’s a surreal sight — the sea running along the road, the road that once belonged to the sea.
Engineers on site believe the biggest challenge in land reclamation is securing their work from the sea. In 2019, during a cyclone in the city, a major portion of the reclaimed area at Worli and other sites were washed away in high tide. “Three years after the incident, we are still redoing that portion. Such events push back the entire project. When the monsoon arrives, all work mostly comes to a halt and the main focus shifts to securing whatever work has been done,”said a site engineer at Worli.
Mumbai witnessed its last major reclamation about 50 years ago for two business districts: Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and Nariman Point. The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Rules that came into place in 1991 put curbs on any new reclamation from the sea.
However, two decades later, in 2011, then CM Prithviraj Chavan proposed a second phase of the Bandra-Worli Sea link from Worli to Marine Drive, which would be a combination of a coastal road, a bridge on stilts and a tunnel.
But the Congress-NCP government could not decide what suited Mumbai better: more sea links or a coastal road. When the BJP-Sena government came to power in 2014, then CM Devendra Fadnavis decided to back the latter.
The current design of the Coastal Road project, known by different names over the last two decades — Worli-Haji Ali Sea link, Coastal Ring Road, Bandra-Worli Sea link Phase 2 — was approved in 2017, after the Centre amended the CRZ rules for the project.
While BMC’s original plan had required reclamation of 90 hectares, as the project progressed, it realised it would need an additional 21 hectares. The application for additional reclamation is awaiting a nod from the Central Ministry of Environment.
Not a smooth ride
Along the way, the project has seen its share of protests, court battles and a nine-month suspension of work.
Within a year of construction, in 2019, six public interest litigations were filed against the project, highlighting various environmental impacts due to the reclamation.
Following this, in July 2019, the Bombay High Court quashed the CRZ clearance granted for the project and directed the BMC to get a detailed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report. With that, work halted for over six months until December 2019, when the Supreme Court allowed BMC to start work once again after the civic body moved a special leave petition against the High Court stay.
Environmentalists and fisherfolks have opposed the project citing irreversible damage to marine life, biodiversity and fish-breeding areas at Worli, Haji Ali and Priyadarshini Park.
“The additional reclamation has already caused severe and irreversible harm to the Mumbai coastline, and remaining areas need to be protected urgently… Given the long history of encroachment in the city, it has to be seen how the BMC manages to keep these spaces free of any commercial development. If any commercial project, say, a residential property, is allowed on the reclaimed land created for the road, it will be in violation of the SC,” says Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust, who was also one of the petitioners in the apex court against the Coastal Road.
Besides, environmentalists fear, marine biodiversity will be impacted. In November last year, experts from the National Institute of Oceanography and officials from the forest department completed translocation of a colony of fragile corals from the Haji Ali work site.
Citizens and traffic experts are also worried about coastal road interchanges that could create bottle necks at entry and exit to many city roads. In all, 13 interchanges have been planned, with the biggest at Haji Ali.
“Having connecting points or interchanges on the coastal road is a good idea but the city’s internal roads are already very crowded. The entry and exits of these interchanges, especially at a junction like Haji Ali, for vehicles coming from the suburbs will be crowded. With existing bottlenecks, handling new chokepoints will be crucial,” Ashok Datar, transport expert told The Sunday Express.
But the Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC and which has been at loggerheads with erstwhile ally BJP over taking credit for the project, isn’t letting the controversies slow it down.
Last month, CM Uddhav Thackeray, while launching the TBM at Priyadarshini Park, said, “The BMC has done outstanding planning to execute the Coastal Road. Work continued in spite of the pandemic. This road will change the face of Mumbai.”
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