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Ecological illiteracy regarding Mumbai

By Darryl D'Monte

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently increased the floor space index in Mumbai’s coastal belts. It’s a move doomed to fail; and will only add to the city’s cup of environmental woes, writes Darryl D’Monte

There is a great deal of confusion over what Mumbai’s population is: ask even the generally well-informed and you will get as many estimates as there are people. The problem, partly, lies in the misconception of geographical area one is referring to. Mumbai should actually refer to Greater Mumbai, around 460 sq km, a peninsula that is 12 km wide at its widest and 40 km long. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) is much bigger, at 4,355 sq km, and includes Navi Mumbai, the satellite city across the harbour.

Mumbai’s population, according to experts from the International Institute of Population Studies in the city, is now estimated to be 16 million, up 4 million from 12 million at the last census in 2001. The MMR’s is expected to be 18 million. On both counts, Mumbai qualifies as a world mega city, for which there must be more than 10 million inhabitants. New Delhi is the only other city in the country that qualifies for such a distinction, and is growing faster than Greater Mumbai.

The real growth is in the MMR, which includes outlying townships like Thane and Kalyan which are themselves greater than 1 million each and have been growing faster than Mumbai proper. By 2025, according to the Asian Development Bank, 20 of the world’s megacities will be in Asia. UN estimates put the MMR as the second most populous in the world in 2015, with 27.4 million. The Washington-based Population Institute projects the MMR as the world’s most populous by 2020, with 28.5 million. It is expected to touch 40 million by 2050, which is a terrifying thought given the already beleaguered situation in which Mumbaikars find themselves.

Since Mumbai is also the commercial capital, and erstwhile industrial capital, it is being studied with great interest -- almost more so by academics abroad than by homegrown ones, with honourable exceptions. Most of the attention has been on its economic growth -- or lack of it. For instance, Professor Jan Nijman, a geographer from the University of Miami, has studied Mumbai’s growth as reflected in its fluctuating real estate values. This January, he accompanied a group of 50 members from the National Geographic Society and their spouses from the US. A one-day whirlwind visit -- including a trip to Dharavi -- ended with presentations which included one on Mumbai as a mega city by this columnist.

However, it would be true to say that most of the attention from academics and experts has been on the city’s growth as a financial centre, or its physical growth as a hub for real estate developers who are achieving -- literally -- greater heights with each passing day.  Mukesh Ambani’s extravagant residence, Antilla, which cost $1 billion to build and reputedly has another $1 billion invested in its Xanadu-like interiors, is the epitome of such high-rise fantasies, along with other upper-end apartments exchanging hands for Rs 100,000 a square foot. Builders are vying with each other to build taller and taller towers; hopefully, a building with over 100 floors in the relatively deserted area of Wadala has been shelved.

The one aspect which has escaped the attention of experts, whether in Mumbai or Delhi, is the ecological dimension. Bangalore too has not been mindful of its ecology; although it is the third most populous city with around 6 million residents (Kolkata is stagnating), it has some way to go before becoming a mega city.

Mumbai’s geography has been completely ignored by planners who typically think of technocratic solutions to most city problems. The island city, some 100 sq km in area, has a large proportion of reclaimed land. Originally, this took place during the British Raj when seven islands were reclaimed to the accompaniment of much scandal. Congress leaders continued to reclaim land in the 1960s and 1970s, until Indira Gandhi stepped in to halt it in 1974. By that time the damage was done: with the newly-reclaimed areas of Backbay and Nariman Point, Mumbai’s north-south transport axis was reinforced, with thousands of commuters forced to travel southwards to the central business district every morning, and in the reverse direction every evening. This lemming-like situation has been the bane of the metropolis.

Mumbai’s island city is said to have the greatest amount of reclaimed land of any major metropolis in the world. When speculators were exposed during the Raj, land was hastily filled in, which is why certain low-lying areas of south Mumbai are perennially flooded. But the mega city’s day of reckoning came on July 26, 2005, when north Mumbai received some 934 mm or 37 inches of rain in 24 hours, most of it within a 10-hour period. Such an unprecedented downpour would have felled any mega city in the world. US academics from New York who happened to be grounded in the city during the deluge confirmed that Manhattan too would have been under water.

Because it is a peninsula, Greater Mumbai faces a peculiar problem every monsoon. If torrential rain is accompanied by high tide, the water cannot escape and backs up in the city, causing floods and stranding hundreds of people. This is exactly what happened that July:  the downpour was over the northern suburbs, which were virtually cut off since train tracks and roads were flooded. Even if the administration, which was slow to act, wanted to provide relief to stranded citizens, it could not for the simple reason that vehicles and supplies from the state government and municipal headquarters in south Mumbai could not reach the beleaguered suburbs for a couple of days, till the water had drained away.

What the deluge taught Mumbaikars was that one can ignore the ecology of any major city only at one’s own peril. Unknown to most citizens, Tulsi and Vihar lakes in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park -- comprising some 110 sq km -- drained into Powai lake, from which the spillover went into the Mithi river. This outlet was treated as little more than a dirty drain; no one had a clue that it served an important role as a safety valve in heavy rain.

That fateful day, the Mithi spilled its banks causing death and mayhem. The hundreds of encroachments along its banks were the first to experience its fury. Ignorance of its role extended all the way to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the city’s chief planning agency, whose role has been greatly diminished in this era of laissez faire governance. It permitted -- indeed, if it was ever consulted by the National Airports Authority in the first place -- the Mithi to be bent at a 90-degree angle twice as it snaked its way through the airport runways. This is why Mumbai airport was closed for two or three days in July 2005 when its tarmac was under several inches of water during that cataclysmic event.

But this was by no means all. The Mithi was bent further downstream as the National Stock Exchange was built on its banks in the new central business district of Bandra-Kurla (which itself violated Coastal Regulation Zone rules by reclaiming land from mangroves). Just before it empties into Mahim Bay, the Mithi is flanked by none other than the new MMRDA building!

It was only after the floods that the authorities and citizens alike awoke to the crucial role that the Mithi plays in ensuring Mumbai’s drainage and began to take steps to rehabilitate the river.

Since 2005, encroachments along the Mithi -- which include illegal units that recycle engine oil, often letting unused effluents leak into the river -- have been removed and the river dredged to keep it clear. However, along a tiny stretch near the airport boundary wall the authorities are building concrete walls in a futile effort to “control” the turbulent river. If there is very heavy rainfall, the water could back up and mount the wall, causing havoc behind it.

The important ecological role of such rivers has been universally forgotten. It is now believed that, in Delhi, the Akshardham temple on the banks of the Yamuna did not receive environment clearance, as critics have claimed all along and Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has repeatedly denied. In Agra, the central government had to intervene to call a halt to Chief Minister Mayawati’s harebrained scheme some years ago -- nicknamed “Taj Mall” -- to build a chain of tourist amenities, including a huge mall, on the banks of the Yamuna, a stone’s throw from the “miracle in marble”. The Rs 175 crore project was fortunately stopped in its tracks or it could have caused incalculable damage by flooding the foundation of the Taj Mahal during a heavy monsoon season.

In Ahmedabad, the state government is embarking on an expensive folly by walling the banks of the Sabarmati, some 10 metres high, over a stretch on either side. It is “beautifying” the bank, a la the south bank of the Thames in London, which has become a major cultural centre. While pedestrian walkways and other amenities are greatly welcome, there is the danger of trying to force oneself on nature, as it were. Admittedly, the flow in the river -- ironically, Gandhi’s well-preserved ashram, with an iconic information centre designed by Charles Correa, lies on its bank -- dwindles to a trickle during much of the year and is controlled by a dam upstream.

However, if there are heavy rains and the authorities are forced to release water from the dam’s floodgates, as happened a few years ago, there is every reason to fear that the swelling tide will mount the walls and cascade onto the city’s people. Although slum-dwellers along the banks, including those who ran a popular Itvari bazaar, or Sunday market, for odds and ends on the Sabarmati’s banks, have been relocated, they claim the new sites are too far from their workplaces, although they have been given new homes, and their sense of community has been disrupted.

Another ecological dimension that has been conveniently ignored in Mumbai is rising sea levels. As we have seen, Mumbai boasts some of the highest real estate values in the world. As against its highest recorded value of around $1,000 a square foot, London’s top-end properties hover around $3,200 a square foot, but, unbelievably, Manhattan’s are just around $1,200, not much higher than the poshest homes in south Mumbai. In Mumbai, as in the two other cities mentioned, houses along the coast and river banks fetch the highest price because of the views they command.

According to researchers from SP College in Pune, sea levels in and around Mumbai, along the Maharashtra strip of the Konkan coast, have risen by 5-6 cm in the past 20 years. There is no doubt that, globally, ocean levels are rising due to melting polar ice caps. There is no way Mumbai can insulate itself from this man-made phenomenon. The state government, in a knee-jerk reaction to the 2004 tsunami, attempted to build sea walls along the city’s coastline, in a Canute-like gesture to keep the waves at bay. This was an ill-disguised move by government officials, in collusion with contractors, to cream off funds under the pretext of protecting the city from the wrath of a tsunami, which is self-evidently impossible.

How will the city safeguard the properties of everyone, including fisherfolk colonies, or gaothans,along the coast when the tide imperceptibly but inexorably rises? Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently allowed a greater floor space index (buildable floor space in relation to the area of the plot) in city coastal belts. He, if anyone, ought to be aware that this venture is doomed to fail in the long run, particularly if there is a major fishing colony which collectively decides to go in for high-rise construction, aided and abetted by builders.

The only term to describe such shortsighted vision is ‘ecological illiteracy’. Whether it is a river which planners and technocrats want to bend out of shape, or mangroves, or tidal areas that are cleared for construction, or new high-rise development along the coast, Mumbai’s cup of environmental woes is evidently filled to the brim.

Infochange News & Features, January 2011