Troubled waters: Coastal Road Project

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It is peak fishing season in Mumbai. For over two months, nearly 200 artisan fishers of the Worli Koliwada (fishing colony) have been taking out their boats each morning, however, all are not heading out for fishing. From September 20, around 25 motorised and non-motorised boats in rotation set out through the day and night from Cleveland Bunder in Worli, located in the central part of Mumbai, to park their boats around a temporary jetty at the Coastal Road construction site.

On December 21, despite being warned of penal action by the Worli police, the protesting fisherfolk disrupted the construction of the Coastal Road project for the 11th time. Their demand is singular— increase the gap between two pillars that will come at the Worli end of the project. The Coastal Road is a 10.58 km stretch starting from the Marine Drive promenade to the Worli-end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, promising to ease traffic in one of the most congested cities.

While work on the southern section Coastal Road—at Marine lines, Haji Ali — is continuing, it is the Worli section of the project that is attracting attention. At the Worli end, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) will construct two bridges connecting the south of the Bandra Worli Sea Link and the north end of the Coastal Road. The work on the section has been stalled for over two months as the fishermen have gheraoed the temporary jetty and the barge that will carry construction materials and machinery from the jetty to the construction site.

Cleveland Bunder

Beyond the yellow barricades that advertise the Mumbai Coastal Road project, which, at the very least, promises to change the face of the Mumbai coast, lies one of the four-artisanal fishing landing centres— Cleveland Bunder. The century-old fishing village fears that very promise. The bunder is a harbour for shallow water, small-scale fishers, called artisanal fishers. These artisanal fishers do not use trawlers, and fish in shallow water with motorised and non-motorised boats.

The Koli community leaders estimate that Cleveland Bunder supports 200 families in Worli Koliwada which are involved either in artisanal fishing or as retailers and sellers. It provides harbour for a varying fleet of motorised and non-motorised boats, which range between 45 and 60 on any given day, and also employs several migrant fish workers in addition to the Kolis. Locals estimate that the dock is at least a century old.

The interchange, protest and the demand

Running parallel to the Cleveland Bunder, an interchange bridge will connect the Coastal Road project with the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (BWSL), for traffic to seamlessly flow between the two. Like the Bandra-Worli Sealink which also runs parallel to Cleveland Bunder, the new interchange will severely restrict the navigational route available to boats venturing out to open seas, said the fisherfolk. Currently, as the boats exit the Cleveland bunder, it traverses through a narrow, zig-zag, shallow and rocky path to the fishing grounds. These shallow waters off the west coast, from Mount Mary in Bandra to the southern tip of Malabar Hills, are rich fishing grounds for the small scale, traditional fishers.

The boats pass between two pillars about 30 metres apart that support the Bandra-Worli Sea Link overhead. Once the interchange comes at the location, the boats will have to pass again through four pillars. As per the current plan, BMC will provide a gap of 60 metres between the pillars. However, the fisherfolk have claimed that the gap is not enough.

Spearheading the protest, Nitesh Patil, 35, a fourth-generation fisherman and the director of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Vyavsay Sahakari Society (WKNVSS), said, “We require a span of at least 200 metres to safely manoeuvre our boats. Steering a boat is not like driving on the road, where if a road is shut, one can take the unknown diversion. The wind, waves play a major role in it. In addition to being rocky, this area has strong sea currents. One strong wave, or a gust of sudden wind, can throw our small boats crashing against the pillars. The BWSL pillars have already slowed us down and now two more bridges will completely restrict our movement.”

Nitesh further explains that the distance between the BWSL pillars is only 30 metres and that their wider cylindrical foundations below the surface of the water make the passage even narrower. He said, these infrastructure projects are close to the dock, aligning with the coast, in the inter-tidal zone, that directly attacks the livelihood of the traditional shallow water fishers. “We don’t use trawlers or go into the deep sea disturbing the seabed. Our fishing grounds are shallow water, which is the location of the project and thus a threat to us.”

In peak fishing season, from August to December, there is an intense competition for water-space and a continuous line of nets is cast along the rocky seabed between Worli and Raj Bhavan at the end of Malabar Hill. The fishing water is based on a mutual understanding between adjacent Koliwadas (fishing villages). Every family is apportioned a specific area of the sea which the fishers refer to as the saj, a muddy portion of the seabed, beyond the rocky areas. However, with multiple projects in the sea and restrictions on the fishing grounds, these mutual understandings are also under stress.

Fisherfolks said more than one boat cannot pass through the span at a given time. The pillars have slowed them down and made it an everyday risk just to reach their fishing grounds, they said. On October 14, when the Hindustan Construction Company – which is tasked with building the interchange anchored three buoys in the fishing waters just off Cleveland Bunder, to facilitate the movement of barges and tugboats in the area, the protests began at the site.

‘60 metres navigational span is sufficient’

In response to the growing protest, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said that the design has been vetted by competent authorities. Giving an example, BMC said that the clear span between the two pillars of the existing Bandra-Worli link road for fishermen is 17 metres 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 the spans is 56 metres.

BMC stated that as per the guidelines of the Inland Waterways Authority of India issued by the Maharashtra Maritime Board, the navigation span of 30 metres is sufficient.

According to the guidelines, the navigation span is required to be 8 times the width of the boat for transportation. According to the data from the state fisheries department, the largest licensed vehicle at Worli jetty is 10.4 metres long and 3.8 metres wide with a carrying capacity of 4,980 kg and a water depth of 3.6 metres. “According to this, the navigation span should be kept at a maximum of 30.4 metres for double carriage. The Mumbai Coastal Road project is providing a navigational span of 60 metres, double than mandated,” read the statement issued by the civic body in response to the protests.

The BMC further stated that it has appointed Tata Institute of Social Sciences to draft a policy to compensate the fishermen during the construction of the project. Municipal commissioner Iqbal Chahal also agreed to an independent review of their demands for a re-design of the interchange.

However, the BMC has asked the fishermen to appoint an independent, technical committee that can without any bias review their demands. BMC has said that it will pay the fees of the consultant. Fishermen are irked with the BMC’s insistence on an independent, expert review which undermines the fisherfolk’s own knowledge and expertise. “How can they even imagine replacing the decade-long expertise with experts who do not know about steering a boat in the open sea. There are practical problems here. The least experts, BMC and our elected MLA (Aaditya Thackeray) can do is come to the site and see for themselves the problems on the ground,” said Ritesh Gajanan Shivdekar, one of the fishermen from Worli Koliwada.

Fisherfolks have responded saying that the IS:4651 standards are meant for harbour entrance channels, and not for bridge columns in the open sea, as is the case with the interchange. “The appropriate distance for navigation ought to be based on the specific geomorphic conditions and tide pattern and currents. The standards do not say that large spans cannot be built,” the fisherfolks’ statement said.

Following over two months of halt in construction, Worli Police station earlier this week warned fisherfolk of penal action if they protest in the open sea and stop BMC from performing its duties. The fisherfolk have refused to move from the area until their demand for design change is met.

Loss of fishing grounds

With the reclamation work for the Coastal Road which began in 2018, the fisherfolk said they have already lost fish breeding spots. Explaining the shallow water and fishing ground near the Worli Koliwada, artisanal fisherman Vijay Shantaram Pawar said that in the water between Worli and Bangana, crabs, each weighing 2 kg, lobsters weighing 1-1.2 kg are found, which can be sold at Rs 1,100 to Rs 1,200 for a piece. “Earlier, just off the Worli sea face, we didn’t even have to set out our boats, we simply use to wade into knee-deep water and throw a net and pick them out with our bare hands. Before the construction began, when the experts came for inspection, I caught a ghol, just of the Worli sea face, which fetches Rs 8k to 10k per kg. That area now is reclaimed.”

Small-scale fishermen of the Worli Koliwada are largely concentrated in the shallow waters. Pawar said, “The rocky shore that has been reclaimed for this road was the most fertile breeding zone and is completely lost. This rocky coastal area is a hub for the expensive lobsters and black and white tiger prawns.”

At the start of the peak fishing season and soon after the monsoons, the quality of the sea is different, as rainwater mixed with saltwater gives it a slightly sweetish taste. During this time, lobsters and ghol arrive in large numbers and remain close to the shore for 17-20 days. However, fisherfolk claimed that because of the ongoing construction noise, fish don’t remain close to the shore. “Since the construction, there is a change in the tidal patterns, which has hindered the movement of the fish and has either pushed them deeper into the sea or towards the northern end— Dadar Seaface, Khar, Bandra. Now, I have to invest more in diesel to take my boat from my backyard to Dadar and Bandra fishing grounds, cutting into my earnings,” said Pawar.

Other fishers along the South Mumbai coast from Priyadarshini Park to Worli too, have begun to report declining fish stocks — in this particular stretch, land has been reclaimed and a connecting bridge is coming up at Haji Ali — as space for small-scale fishers on non-motorised boats and fisherwomen to pick oysters and shellfish has reduced.

This comes at a time when the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) raised a red flag over the fishing industry in the state, last year. In 2019-20, fish landings reported their lowest harvest in 45 years, while reports show a decreasing, year-on-year trend since 2017. According to the CMFRI, red toothed triggerfish (Odonus Niger), a commercially unimportant fish that feeds on other fishes, has registered a significant increase along the state’s coastline. The preliminary observation shows that changes in water currents in the Arabian Sea could be the reason.

In a meeting with Worli fisherfolk in October, the BMC has directed fisherfolk to not cast their nets, use boats in the fishing ground stretching from Worli sea face, running almost parallel to the Bandra Worli Sealink. BMC has assured compensation for two years, starting October 8, this year.

“They have stopped us from casting our nets. We are restrained from our livelihood activity and in return, we are getting a promise of compensation. What will be the compensation, and will we ever get it?” asked Nitesh Patil.

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