India's crumbling cities: Falling bridges, rising sea level weigh on Mumbai

Ninety-year old former Mumbai police commissioner, Julio Ribeiro, reflects on how his city is undergoing “relentless” work, something which he has never seen before.

He is referring to the construction of the metro network, which has placed a large part of the port city under the ‘work in progress’ tag. The Rs 80,000-crore metro project is part of a larger plan to solve Mumbai’s crumbling infrastructure woes. In addition to the metro, there are plans for a coastal road and a second airport. Work on a trans-harbour link is also under way.

“We always chase the problem; we do not anticipate and do something about it before it hits you,” Ribeiro says. 

As of 2011, Mumbai and its suburban district had a population of 12. 4 million, more than half of them living in slums. According to the Western Railway website, of the 14 million people travelling per day by the Indian Railways, more than 6 million people travel per day on the Mumbai Suburban rail alone.

The 2011 Census adds that the peaceful development of Mumbai over the last one century has elevated the city to the status of Urbs Prima in Indis or the First City of India.  However, the city’s infrastructure has failed to keep up with its status. In March this year, a footbridge to the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, Mumbai’s busiest railway station, collapsed. 

Such incidents have forced the authorities to either demolish or shut down a couple of bridges in the city. Mumbai’s railway network, known as the lifeline of the linear city, killed more than nine people daily on an average in 2018.

Urban planner Pedro Ortiz attributes the city’s infrastructure woes to the lack of maintenance. “Politicians love to inaugurate things and get their photo in the news, but they do not like to spend money on maintenance, where you do not see glamourous results,” he adds.

At present, the planned car-shed for the metro network finds itself at the centre of a political battle. The newly elected Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi has stopped work on the car-shed over environmental concerns. 

This is Mumbai’s second attempt to decongest and improve its infrastructure. The first was in the 1970s.

Between 1940 and 1970, Mumbai (then Bombay) undertook reclamation work in different parts of the city. However, the reclamation further burdened Mumbai’s transport system, with more people travelling to the southern part of the island city. “A little later (after reclamation), there was realisation that Mumbai was bursting at its seams. That was when Navi Mumbai was conceptualised,” says Shyam Saksena, an activist who has lived in Mumbai since 1956.

“Notwithstanding the huge investment made into Navi Mumbai, nobody moved to the new city. Neither the government departments nor the Mantralaya shifted out,” Saksena adds. Navi Mumbai is a planned satellite city for Mumbai and is expected to house the city’s second airport.

The second airport and the other planned infrastructure projects in Mumbai face another dilemma. A study by Climate Central, a US research institute, suggests that the city runs the risk of being submerged by 2050. 

“Decisions are been made without taking this into account. The new airport is going to be under the sea. The peninsula is going to be extremely affected. Mumbai is not managing its land. That is why you end up building roads over the sea,” Ortiz says.

Despite the hurdles, the city authorities are working on a long-term plan to re-energise Mumbai. “Our development plan gives complete protection to the mangroves. We are ensuring that all mangrove belts are protected and restored as mangroves are the best buffer against a rise in sea level,” says Praveen Pardeshi, the city’s municipal commissioner.

Mumbai also has to grapple with the growing incidence of flooding. There has been a significant rise in the number of flooding incidents in the last two decades. The worst flood so far was in July 2005, which claimed hundreds of lives, with an estimated economic cost of Rs 5,000 crore. “When I was a young boy, during the reclamation period, there were talks that we were fooling around with nature. But no big flood happened,” says Ribeiro, who lives in a sea-facing apartment. "But, climate change is happening, we have seen its effect in the last two years," he adds.

Pardeshi says that the coastal road project is the best exigency plan against rising sea levels. However, work on it has been halted due to a legal battle, ironically, over concerns of environmental damage.

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