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Cratena sea slug feeding on hydroid polyps at Haji Ali. Photo by Shaunak Modi.

Mumbai Coastal Road Project: Photographers Document Marine Life, Fishermen Who Stand To Lose

By Shaunak Modi

A longer version of this was first published in FirstPost on May 24, 2019.

Five years and countless protests and petitions later, Mumbai’s widely contested coastal road project has hit the pause button, albeit tentatively. Earlier in April this year, the Bombay High Court ordered a stay on the reclamation of the coastline by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), thereby stopping the construction of the 10-kilometre-long section of the planned coastal road until 3 June.

For the first phase of the project alone, involving the construction of the south section — from Nariman Point to Worli — the BMC will have to shell out Rs 12, 700 crores. The enterprise is said to be one of the largest ever undertaken by the civic body. It aims to divert the congestion on the city’s roads and provide an alternative for the bustling Western Express Highway by erecting a 35-kilometre-long arterial road.

Overshadowed by the needs of a thriving metropolis, the vibrant aquatic life found within this shoreline is threatened by the encroaching concrete jungle.

Its fauna includes rare varieties of corals, sea slugs, and fish, among other creatures. It is also the sole source of livelihood for a community of artisanal fishermen, whose catch largely comprises fish and crabs found in the intertidal pools.

Several activists have noted that the project could potentially alter the coastal morphology of Mumbai, as it aims to cover much of the intertidal zone, that is visible during low tide and submerged during high tide. From the sandy beaches of Juhu to the rocky terrains near Haji Ali, the ‘developmental’ venture threatens to ‘bury all the animals’ under it, and endanger the livelihoods of the fishing communities too.

For the city of dreams, development comes at the price of its marine life.

On 24 April, 2019, The Indian Express reported that an affidavit issued by the BMC states that since “most of the fishing activity takes place beyond the alignment of the coastal road, navigational bridges will be provided to ensure that there is no adverse impact on ongoing fishing activities and that adequate compensation will be provided for traditional fishing.”

Construction for the coastal road at Girgaon Chowpatty. Photo: Shaunak Modi
Construction for the coastal road at Girgaon Chowpatty. Photo: Shaunak Modi

“Mumbai’s coastline is irreversibly changing. I’m documenting all her shores as I’d like to remember them, with the animals that live there and the people that live around them.

But now, the corals that should be the pride of our shores, are being constructed over. In Haji Ali, a part of the coastal road is proposed to be built on a colony of false pillow corals (Pseudosiderastrea tayamai), animals that are not only protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, but also classified globally as ‘near threatened’ in IUCN’s Red List). This a recurring theme across Mumbai’s western shoreline.

Stony corals found on Mumbai's rocky shores.
Cup corals (Rhizangiidae) are found across Mumbai’s western coastline. Photo: Shaunak Modi

Work has already begun at Scandal Point, Haji Ali and Worli. These rocky shores will cease to exist on being reclaimed with mud and rocks, burying all the animals under it.

Shores not being ‘reclaimed’ will face medium to long-term impacts, from the siltation that will occur as a result of the Sea Link’s construction. This is evident in the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project.

Based on how Dadar’s beach has been permanently changed after the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, it can be assumed that there will be long lasting effects of the coastal road construction all along the city’s coastline.

Despite how difficult the conditions are, Mumbai’s marine life thrives on her shores.

Sea anemones, sea stars (starfish), crabs and zoanthids, a few of the animals I photograph often, have each adapted differently to living outside the water for a few hours when the tide recedes.

Cratena sea slug feeding on hydroid polyps in Mumbai.
Cratena sea slug feeding on hydroid polyps. Photo: Shaunak Modi

Yet, an entire ecosystem has not found any mention in an infrastructure project that threatens its very existence.”

Modi, a member of MLOM, has photographed about a hundred species of intertidal marine life in a span of two years, spotting fauna that isn’t conventionally associated with a metropolis.


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