Every few decades, Mumbai goes through a major development spurt that alters its relationship with the sea for the better or for the worse. One such major shift is currently underway.
Mumbai’s coastline is transforming, with reclamation for an ambitious coastal freeway almost through. It will change two of the city’s iconic promenades—the Worli sea face and Marine drive—on the western side, and a showpiece structure coming up on its eastern coast in the form of the Sewri-Nhava Sheva Mumbai Trans Harbour Link bridge.
And with that, the relationship of Mumbai’s residents with the sea is once again set for a sea change.
“All of us friends used to come here when it rained. I asked everyone today if they wanted to join me, and all of them refused, saying ‘what’s the point when this is not a sea face anymore?’” 18-year-old Itisha Gaikwad, sitting on a bench at the Worli sea face promenade, said.
On the western coast, those used to an uninterrupted sea view within a few feet of their windows are staring at the possibility of having to get used to being separated from the sea by several metres of a green patch and a road. While on the eastern side, residential project launches in Mumbai’s areas, such as Wadala and Parel, not traditionally the city’s A-list localities, are now offering luxury sea-view homes with vistas of the eastern coast.
A sea change
Every rainy day, Mumbai’s residents have a date with the city’s sea.
People make their way to the nearest promenade, sink their teeth into freshly roasted bhutta (corn) sprinkled with lemon, chilli and salt, and sip on cutting chai hand-delivered by hawkers on cycles.
But, this year, even on rainy days, the Worli sea face promenade has been unusually deserted, with no bhutta vendors or cycle chaiwallahs, because there are no customers warming up in the cold rain and breeze.
The bench on which Gaikwad sat at Worli sea face used to once face the sea. Now, it faces tall barricades announcing the construction of the Mumbai coastal road, promising to “connect people and places.” Behind the barricades lies a long sandy stretch of reclaimed land, and a faint smell of quarried stone wafts in the air.
The crowd at the Marine Drive promenade has thinned too, with 45 per cent of the total length of the boulevard barricaded for the construction of the coastal freeway.
Proponents of the coastal road have assured that this is a temporary disturbance. Once complete, the Rs 12,721-crore road will further embellish Worli sea face, as well as a part of the landmark Marine Drive—the other promenade impacted by the project—by adding green spaces on the reclaimed land. As per the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), of the total 111 hectares required to be reclaimed for the project from the sea, 70 hectares will be used for recreational purposes and there will be no commercial exploitation of the land.
“Once the project is complete, there will be a green patch and a road to get through before we can reach the promenade through an underpass. It may still be beautiful, but it won’t feel like home, like the place that makes me think of my grandfather every time I come here,” said 17-year-old Sravani Adsul, who has been frequenting the promenade since she was a child, first with her late grandfather and then with her friends.
Nayana Kathpalia, trustee of NAGAR, a non-government organisation that works on civic issues, said while change is inevitable, the history of poor planning and lack of a holistic urban planning approach in Mumbai makes one wonder if the developmental changes are actually going to improve Mumbai’s interaction with the sea.
“Right now, you can sit on the promenade right next to the sea. I am hoping that the planners have taken rising sea levels into consideration. In the future, on reclaimed land, will the waves flood the promenade? One will have to see,” she said.
The monumental rise of Mumbai’s eastern seafront
In 2014, the Eastern Freeway, which connects Mumbai’s eastern suburbs to South Mumbai, was opened for operations. And for the first time, the eastern sea front entered the city’s imagination. A freeway ride threw up some spectacular views of the Mazgaon docks and the city’s eastern coast otherwise locked away under the Mumbai Port Trust.
Now, the under-construction Mumbai Trans Harbour Link, which will be India’s longest sea link at 22 kilometres, has further made the areas along the eastern harbour attractive real estate destinations.
Pankaj Kapoor, founder and managing director of Liases Foras, a real estate research firm, said there are three key elements that drive real estate prices—accessibility, view and the overall demographic profile of the area.
“The freeway or the harbour link brought accessibility, but the profile and affluence in areas such as Sewri, Parel or Wadala can never compare to a Peddar Road or Nariman Point. However, there was a view to exploit,” Kapoor said.
“The builders here started making tall towers because they wanted to capture the sea view,” he added.
The next major shift in Mumbai’s relation with its eastern coastline, so far considered to be a poorer cousin of its glamorous and wealthy western shore, will be when the Mumbai Port Trust goes through with a decades-old plan to open up the land under it for public use by creating gardens and affordable housing.
Seven islands, Nariman Point to iconic sea link
Mumbai, originally an archipelago of seven islands, started altering its bond with the sea soon after these islands were joined by reclaimed lands.
The earliest records of reclamation are from before 1700, when the creek separating erstwhile Bombay from Mazgaon was reclaimed. This went on till 1918 when 22 acres were reclaimed from the dockyards to create Ballard Estate, a prime commercial location. This was also the period when Mumbai’s crown jewel, Marine Drive, came into existence. Post-independence, planners reclaimed land from the sea in south Mumbai to create an expanse on which the many buildings of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade now stand.
“As children we used to walk from Churchgate to Cuffe Parade and there was a proper promenade throughout and you could feel the closeness of the sea, which is lost now. I miss that openness,” says Kathpalia, who has lived in Mumbai since the pre-Nariman Point era.
The construction of the Bandra-Worli sea link was perhaps the last tectonic shift in Mumbai’s relation with its sea.
When the Bandra-Worli sea link, touted to be India’s first sea link, was being built in 2007, a government civil engineer on the team had told this reporter to mark his words. The sea link is going to be an identity of Mumbai just like the Gateway of India or the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, he had said.
And sure enough, the sea link, with its elegant cable-stayed bridge, has become a permanent feature of any generic ‘Top 10 Things To Do in Mumbai’ list and figures as one of the city’s main identifiers on commercial tourist brochures and even Bollywood films.
However, while the sea link, open only for four-wheelers who can afford the steep toll, became an aspirational landmark, it adversely impacted Mumbai’s interaction with the sea somewhere else.
Local people say the change in tidal patterns due to some reclamation in Bandra for the sea link eroded Dadar’s vast beach expanse, slicing it to a narrow, crowded patch of sand over the years.
Thirty-five-year-old Priyanka Karve, born and brought up in Dadar and now raising a toddler in the same area, reminisces her childhood days of building sand castles and enjoying horseback rides at Dadar Chowpatty.
“Now, I can’t stand there for more than five minutes with my three-year-old daughter. There’s a very small stretch of sand. Hawkers occupy the little area that’s left, and it’s much filthier now,” she said.
Karve misses witnessing the sea’s raw appeal. “The sea link may have beautified the city, but seeing the sea’s beauty and experiencing it are two different things. To experience it is to feel refreshed by the salty breeze, dip your feet into the sand,” she said.
“In coastal Mumbai, this simplicity has unfortunately become a luxury,” she added.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)