Mumbai: A part of the construction work on the ambitious coastal road project in Mumbai has been stalled for over three months now, after fisherfolk and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) got locked in a tussle over the proposed distance between pillars.
Around 200 fishermen in the Worli Koliwada area, a traditional fisherfolk colony, are protesting the construction of pillars over the sea near Cleveland Bunder in Worli. They have only one demand — the navigation span between two proposed pillars should be around 200 metres.
However, according to the BMC, a span of around 60 metres is enough.
The protest started a couple of months ago, but since then, the BMC has formed a panel to interact with the fisherfolk. The panel has held three meetings — on 1 November and 7 December last year and 7 January this year — and has expressed difficulty in changing the design plans at this stage. ThePrint has accessed minutes of the panel’s meetings.
Several Maharashtra cabinet ministers including CM Uddhav Thackeray’s son and Worli MLA Aaditya Thackeray and fisheries minister Aslam Shiekh, as well as BMC officials also held meetings with Worli fisherfolk between October and January. So far, however, there has been no resolution.
The coastal road project, a 10.5-km stretch of freeway from Princess Street at Marine Drive in south Mumbai to the Worli end of the Bandra-Worli sea link, built on reclaimed land, is expected to ease traffic woes for Mumbaikars.
However, the Worli-end connector is the flash point between the fisherfolk and BMC and other governmental bodies.
The coastal road project is about 50 per cent completed and if this issue is resolved on time, then the project will be completed by December 2023, according to the BMC.
ThePrint reached Aaditya Thackeray through text messages for a comment but there was no reply until the time of publishing this report.
The plan and the protest
Cleveland Bunder is a century-old fisherfolk village that is home to nearly 200 families. Its bunder (pier) is known for shallow water fishing. The fisherfolk venture out in shallow waters, which they claim is a good catchment area. This is what Nitesh Patil, a fourth-generation fisherman in the village, fears losing.
“Because the sea is reclaimed, we are already losing out on fishing, and after the pillars come on the navigation route, then we will completely lose out,” he told ThePrint. “We know how the sea is. During storms or rough seas, our boats can crash into the pillars.”
Patil is the secretary of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Vyavsay Sahakari Society, which is spearheading the protest, along with the Worli Koliwada Sarvoday Society.
The BMC’s plan is to construct an interchange that will connect the coastal road with the existing Bandra-Worli sea link.
The fisherfolk say the sea near Cleveland Bunder is rocky and shallow and that is where they navigate their small boats. But with the upcoming pillars, their route can get disrupted. Instead of going straight, they will have to manoeuvre their boats around the pillars and for that, the navigation span should be more than the proposed 60 m.
“It is not like driving on the road. Out in the sea, the wind and water currents decide the navigation and wave pattern,” said Ritesh Shivlekar, a fifth-generation fisherman from the village.
According to him, nobody has given a thought about the locals here. “We are not against development but what is our gain. Who is thinking about it?” he said.
Even during the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link nearly a decade and a half ago, there were protests in the area. At the time, the sea link pillars were erected around 30 m apart.
“They did the same with the Sea Link and we were under Section 144 (unlawful assembly) for 45 days at that time,” said Patil.
But the new pillars are coming up in the way of their navigation route, the fishermen said, adding that the existing Sea Link pillars have already slowed them down, and if more pillars come up on their route, it will destroy their livelihood.
“We are already at 50 per cent loss because of the Sea Link. With this, we will go down further. What will we eat then?” Shivlekar asked.
‘Difficult to change plan’
Speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, a BMC official who is part of the panel holding meetings with the fisherfolk said the municipal corporation has told the community that experts have gone through the design of the project and it is “difficult to change the plan” now.
According to minutes of the meeting in January, the BMC said the clear span between the two pillars of the existing Bandra-Worli Sea Link for fishermen is 17 metres (net distance, less than the gross distance of around 30 m) and boats can pass through only one place, while the Mumbai coastal road project will allow boats to pass through three spans and the net distance between them is 56 metres. Moreover, there will be three such spans available for navigation.
The corporation also said that according to the norms of the Inland Waterways Authority of India and Maharashtra Maritime Board, the maximum span requirement is only 32 metres.
However, the fisherfolk are not convinced. “We are the original sons of the sea here. We have practical knowledge and experience of navigation, something any BMC or government engineer won’t have from a book. So how can they say they have studied it?” Patil asked.
In the January meeting, the fisherfolk were asked to send a proposal in the form of a report within 15 days by appointing relevant experts. “Till date, we haven’t received any proposal from their side but we will wait,” said the BMC officer in-charge, who didn’t wish to be named.
Patil called this an unreasonable expectation. “When BMC can take months to appoint a contractor, how can they expect us to submit a report in two weeks? This is unreasonable,” he said.
After the BMC wrote a letter on 11 January saying the fisherfolk had agreed to the construction of some pillars, the community responded with a letter on 20 January, saying no such agreement was reached and work shouldn’t begin until the issue is resolved.
Upset with Aaditya Thackeray
The fisherfolk are also upset that their MLA, Aaditya Thackeray, who is also the state environment minister and is personally looking at this project, hasn’t visited the site even once.
“Want to request Aaditya ji that this is our community who thrive on fishing, so please don’t destroy us,” Shivlekar said.
While the BMC said it has appointed the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to study and recommend compensation for the fisherfolk community, the local community said compensation isn’t a big issue, the route is.
“We are not definitely not against development but we, the sons of soil, weren’t consulted earlier. Compensation isn’t a big issue for us. We thrive on sea and if you shut our route, how will we survive,” asked Shivlekar.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)