Mumbai is spending nearly 1 lakh crore on equitable and sustainable transportation through the electric Mumbai Metro. Yet, if the metro represents a foot into the future, another parallel project suggests one foot still firmly stuck in the past. A massive “Coastal Road” project is underway in Mumbai that would be built on a combination of reclaimed land for its southern phase and on stilts for the northern phase.
Several transportation experts indicate that due to a concept of “induced demand”, this project would not solve the goal of decongesting the city’s clogged arterial roads. Of course roads means cars, and cars mean petrol guzzling vehicles only accessible to the rich. Worst of all, the road solves no real traffic problems - it only adds to the existing nightmarish bottlenecks.
Furthermore, urban planners and environmentalists allege that such large scale land reclamation will make Mumbai vulnerable to future flooding, destroy the fragile and important marine ecology, and the livelihoods of Mumbai’s Koli fisherfolk.
If this project is so ill-advised why is it happening? Well, some combination of inertia, vested interest and lack of clear thinking. It was our goal to make sure the public interest and voice, which had been totally ignored while this project was steamrolled through, was taken into account.
stage one: learning
Attending public forums:
In the beginning, all I knew was that the city was planning to undertake a massive coastal road project. Wanting to know more, I took two different paths.First, the citizens route. I used public forums of all sorts: ward meetings, town halls, government websites.
Through the camera’s lens:
Second, the adventurous route. I went on-site and took photographs of the area the project would be built, over time creating a large archive of a place that would never be the same once the road came to be.Photography meant that I started to pay careful attention: to the flora and fauna of the area, to the big picture of how this part connected to all the other parts of the city, to the lives and livelihoods that revolved around this coast. I began to worry about the irrevocable losses this project would cause.
What I learnt:
My civic engagement at these forums did little to ease my concerns. What I saw was unfortunately a dismissal of all concerns from urban planners, environmental experts, fisherman who would lose their livelihoods. Worst of all, the government seemed to offer little in the way of a positive vision of why this road needed to be built at all - the whole project seemed thoughtless, which made the impending loss feel even more tragic
stage two: needs emerged
I knew now that I wanted to help do something about this project. Two needs emerged, where I could be of use.
First, public communication and awareness building.
We needed to create petitions, attend talks, write articles so people in the city would know what was going on.
Second, legal research
Legal research could connect to a broader communications campaign. There we several individuals filing public interest litigations against the project on various technical grounds. If their efforts were communicated to a broader audience, I felt there was potential for more people to build their awareness about the massive inherent limitations of the project.
stage three: deployed action
On the public awareness side
We managed to gain quite a bit of traction. Our change.org petition racked up over 1,00,000 signatures, and that in turn set off a cycle of media attention, which led to even more public awareness. Meanwhile, we organised lectures and discussions with urban planners, environmentalists, transportation experts and architects so more citizens could build their understanding about the project, and alternatives that could simultaneously reduce Mumbai’s congestion problem and help us move towards cleaner and more efficient modes of transit.
On the legal battle
We faced incredibly challenging odds. Picture this: two sides of the Bombay High Court. On the left side of the courtroom were a few engaged citizens, respected Senior Counsels who had taken on these PILs on a pro bono basis, and their small support teams of lawyers. On the right, an extraordinary battery of attorneys and representatives from the city’s municipal authority, the state, the Union government, and contracts. Yet, after hearing both sides arguments, the Bombay High Court passed a progressive order in July 2019 on technical grounds reflecting the importance of due process and the rule of law: environmental clearances were found to be absent so the project was put on hold.
stage four: today and onwards
Unfortunately, the Bombay High Court was order was challenged in the Supreme Court and reclamation and construction work has continued in spite of appeals by petitioners, the pandemic and pressing public health priorities, and the state’s lack of funding. The fight continues from our end to have the people’s voice represented.
How to attend public forums like ward meetings and town halls as a regular person
How to understand a locale through photography
How to find where you fit in to a new movement, when there are many different stakeholders
How to get started doing legal research for your civic cause
How to create a successful change.org campaign
How to create public art for your cause
How to communicate complicated public interest ideas to a mass audience
How to win a high court case, against all odds
How to endure over the long term and fight the long fight