Coastal Justice: Mumbai HC puts paid to govt plans for destroying city’s coastline, coral reefs, hundreds of species with Rs 12,000 cr Coastal Road Project

The Coastal Road is a 35.6-kilometre-freeway project designed to connect the western and northern suburbs to the southern island of Mumbai's peninsula.


After a battle that lasted almost six months in court, justice was served by the Bombay High Court on 16 July 2019, in favour of the petitioners of the Coastal Road project. We could finally breathe easy.

The Coastal Road is a 35.6-kilometre-freeway project designed to connect the western and northern suburbs to the southern island of Mumbai's peninsula. The project is estimated to cost about 12,000 crores ($1.7 billion) of taxpayer government funds. The main aim of the project is to "decongest" the city of Mumbai, cutting commute time from 120 minutes to 40 minutes end-to-end. The road will have eight-lane transit routes and highways for an estimated 130,000 vehicles to use daily.

What's the controversy surrounding the Coastal Road Project?

The Coastal Road will be built by reclaiming land near the coast from the "intertidal" rocky shores of Worli right up to Princess Street in Marine Lines — an eleven-kilometre stretch of the city's 34-kilometre coastline. The main argument against the construction of the Coastal Road is that it will destroy quite a bit of Mumbai's age-old natural heritage. Built on a Deccan plateau about 62-68 million years old, Mumbai's coastline constitutes rocky shores that are home to about 344 species of intertidal marine wildlife. These have been documented over the past two years by a citizens collective called the Marine Life Of Mumbai.

These species include corals, gastropods, clams, barnacles, sea slugs, brittle stars, sea anemones, sea fans, molluscs to name a few. Most of these species do not even have baseline data yet, i.e, they haven’t been studied well enough to gauge how threatened or endangered these species currently are. In the case of most coral species documented by the group, the species fell under the "near-threatened" category in the IUCN 'Red List'.

Coastal Justice: Mumbai HC puts paid to govt plans for destroying city’s coastline, coral reefs, hundreds of species with Rs 12,000 cr Coastal Road Project

Coral Polyps. Image credit: Shaunak Modi/Marine Life of Mumbai

The Coastal Road Project will require the entire southern end of the intertidal rocky shore be reclaimed by dumping mud and breaking up the rocky seabed along the shoreline to make road and other ancillary features. Of the 90 hectares of land it needs to reclaim for the project, only 20 hectares are being used to construct the Road itself. The remaining land was to be used for ancillary features like toilets, botanical gardens, cycle tracks, etc along the Road. This would essentially destroy the habitats of most of 344 documented species in the proposed project area. Moreover, it will also displace artisanal small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen dependent on the shore and permanently wipe away this natural heritage, never to return to the coastline again.

Legal battles and loopholes

The Coastal Zone Environment Clearance granted for the project by the Ministry Of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) did not address the threats to marine wildlife, the risk of permanent loss of livelihoods of small scale fishermen and whether the project was being constructed in a sustainable manner. The Clearance set the project work in motion, starting with reclamation of the intertidal rocky shores and breaking of the rocky shore bed.

In April 2019, Mumbai-based NGO Vanashakti filed a petition in the Bombay High Court along with other petitioners invoking the precautionary principle — a clause that applies when an action poses serious or irreversible environmental damage without scientific certainty shall not be a reason to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
with its prayers asking for a comprehensive biodiversity study to be first conducted before permanently destroying the habitat of the marine wildlife.

 

An octopus. Image credit: Sarita Fernandes

An octopus. Image credit: Sarita Fernandes

The CRZ’s Environment Clearance did not apply or receive permissions under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, under which Reef-building corals and sea fans are protected (as Schedule I species). These Schedule I species (wildlife species in the most-protected category under the act, including tigers) were found in the proposed coastal road reclamation zones through secondary data from Marine Life of Mumbai’s documentation on iNaturalist and a shore-walk study conducted by another NGO, Sagarshakti, in March 2019. Through the effort, we documented 36 species, including corals and sea fans, during the four-hour walk along Worli's intertidal rocky shores.

Further, an Environment Impact Assessment was conducted that constituted the foundation for the Clearance granted. This Assessment made passing mentions of the important marine wildlife species whose habitats were under threat from the plans to reclaim land. During the proceedings of the case, the MCGM also refused to acknowledge the presence of Schedule I species of Reef-building corals in their reply and refused to apply for permissions under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

A sea fan under water. Image credit: Sejal Mehta/Marine Life of Mumbai

A sea fan underwater. Image credit: Sejal Mehta/Marine Life of Mumbai

Coastal Justice

On Monday, 15 July 2019, Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice N M Jamdar cancelled the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) clearance and directed all work for the project to be stopped till a new clearance was obtained. It further invoked the authorities to take necessary permissions under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 for the Schedule I species of corals and sea fans, even if they live in tiny tidepools in the area being reclaimed.

The MCGM authorities are no doubt going to protest the judgement in the Supreme Court. Regardless of the judicial verdict on the project, at least for now, the fact of the matter is that reef-building corals exist on Mumbai’s rocky shores, and so do at least 344 species along the million-year-old rocky sea bed along Mumbai's shores. This patch of coastline also supports the livelihoods of some 2000 artisanal fishing families, on tops of the right of every citizen of Mumbai to enjoy its coastal commons.

The author works with Vanashakti, an NGO in Mumbai, as the head of its coastal and marine research division 'Sagarshakti'. She was also instrumental in putting together the PIL that the Bombay High Court ruled in favour of. 

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