Insomnia at Marine Drive

Bolstered by its claim to resettle slum-dwellers, the Centre plans to recast Mumbai’s coastal zone much to the joy of the builders’ lobby. This could spell disaster, argue ecologistsGajanan Khergamker MumbaiToday, if a tsunami-like disaster were to hit Mumbai, a lot of its fury would be buffered by organic bulwarks — the mangroves and salt pans — that protect the city. A few years down the line, the mangroves and salt pans will be gone, leaving behind a mass of concrete ready to crumble at the slightest natural provocation. Indeed, there will be regular repeats of the cloud-burst of 2005 that catapulted the city's dismal infrastructure so transparently before the global arena.As far as the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) issue is concerned, it was initially perceived as 'nature versus development'. But then, that's a matter of the past. Faced with a virtual roadblock erected by a strong environmentalist lobby, those who favoured development altered their ploy. After having camouflaged it as a hindrance to slum resettlement plans and deriving immense political mileage out of the same, the move came through. After all, the city offers only 0.03 acres for every 1,000 people.Now, the Union environment ministry plans to recast the CRZ guidelines that govern construction along the coast. An imminent draft notification modifying the blanket ban on construction within 500 metres of the high tide line is being readied to change things drastically for the much-relieved developer lobby which is all poised to re-work Mumbai's skyline. In accordance with a 'district-wise approach', a 'hazard line' will be drawn separately for each coastal district to define where construction can begin. Parameters like the pattern of storm-surges, sea erosion, topography, and maximum anticipated sea level rise over a 100-year period will play a vital role in the etching of this line.It is perhaps the builders' lobby that will benefit the most. The move is expected to free large tracts of land along the sea for construction activities that will, it is officially claimed, advertently speed up Mumbai's 'slum rehabilitation' plans.Incidentally, the move to recast the guidelines follows recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Committee set up in 2004. The committee said the existing guidelines had “no scientific basis and were obstructing legitimate commercial activity in coastal areas”. Among other zones, Mumbai's 5,500-acre salt pan sprawl is in danger of being buried under a cement-and-steel onslaught. Although officially the salt pans are to be utilised “only to re-house slum dwellers displaced by crucial infrastructure projects in the city,” how much of the good intentions actually percolate down to the poor is anybody's guess!The plan to increase floor space index (FSI) to 2.5 for the salt pans which, ironically, fall under the stringent CRZ prohibiting any construction close to creeks, mangroves and the high tide line, has caused ripples among environmentalists who fear the worst following a realty boom in the environmentally-fragile zones.As opposed to the blanket 500 metre rule, the new rule only talks about the 'setback' line based on the “vulnerability of the coast to natural and manmade hazards”. “On the landward side of the setback line, in respect of new and existing physical and social infrastructure and habitations, there would be no additional restrictions under this notification on construction, modernisation, or expansion, beyond those under the laws and regulations of the local authority,” reads the proposed notification.This may have striking connotations. For example, if the authorities feel that the Marine Drive sea wall provides enough protection, there will be no restriction on construction on the land behind it. It sounds like a dream come true for most developers whose hands have so far been tied owing to CRZ notifications. Mumbai's salt-pans are surrounded by mangroves and fall under CRZ 1, categorised as the most ecologically sensitive and important zone — on a par with national parks, marine parks, sanctuaries, places close to breeding and spawning grounds of fish and areas rich in genetic diversity. The city's salt pans are located at Ghatkopar, Chembur, Wadala, Kanjurmarg, Bhandup, Mandale, Turbhe, Anik, Nahur, Mulund in the eastern suburbs and Dahisar, Mira-Bhayander, Malvani and Virar in the western belt. Salt pans and mangroves serve as organic bulwarks. They are natural holding ponds for rainwater and serve as vital dissipation spaces permitting accumulated waters to drain into the sea. Apparently, if all the salt pan lands are opened for development, the area that is thrown open will be slightly more than nine times the mill land in central Mumbai. The developers feel that mangroves up to 150 metres from the creek should be left untouched. “But anything beyond that can be removed and replanted,” says one on grounds of anonymity. However, geologists are of the view that salt pan lands are unsuitable for reclamation. The continuous production of salt will have weakened the soil and to be able to reach a solid foundation for projects, developers will need to dig very deep.The Mandwa-Alibag stretch is among those targeted for urbanisation with plans for a new airport also on the anvil. The government maintains that the area is not 'green' in the sense of a forest cover, and so there is no harm in urbanisation.  However, the project has met stiff resistance from local farmers.Incidentally, the process of drawing the hazard line was expected to start in mid-2007 once the environment ministry had combed through the objections and suggestions in response to the draft notification. Expected to be complete in five years, the ministry has mooted the idea of waiting so long to scrap the CRZ regime. So, as each district gets its hazard line, the CRZ regime there will be lifted.For a start, the ministry has identified two districts each on the east and west coasts that will serve as sample areas to fine-tune the methodology to draw the hazard line. Where Mumbai is concerned, the scrapping of the CRZ regime depends on how fast the authorities draw up the hazard line. Meanwhile, in the city, the potential for realty development has sent prices spiralling: a salt plot worth Rs 2 crore a year back, costs as high as Rs 70 crore today.One of the options is to “involve the interest of only three stakeholders — government of India, government of Maharashtra and developer”. “It is proposed to share built-up area equally by each stakeholder, which is 33.3 per cent each,'' the Swaminathan committee recommendations said. The lessee of the salt pan land doesn't hold any stake as he is offered monetary compensation. There is a second option too which involves the lessee: “The development of salt pan land with the investment of developer will involve the interests of four stakeholders (Centre, State, lessee and developer). Therefore, the proposed built-up area will also get shared according to the nature of interest involved in the land.” Going by the official version, the developer will have to provide both on-site and off-site infrastructure. “Therefore, incentive FSI shall be 100 per cent as in the case of slum redevelopment schemes in the suburbs. The developer will be allowed to use 15 per cent of the total area for commercial purposes. In this scheme, the developer will get 50 per cent of total built up area in the project as a sale component from which he gets compensated for the cost of construction. The balance 50 per cent is to be shared between the Centre, state government and lessee,'' the document says. However, Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust, says, “The new draft notification has been tailored to ensure that all salt pan lands are given to builders by completely changing the existing CRZ norms. The new notification will also effectively legalise all violations of the present CRZ notification.”Indeed, any stringent, hard-nosed attitude such as blanket bans along coastal zones can be harmful to a nation looking to realise realty and tourism potential along its enviable coastline of more than 7,600 kms. Similarly, any arbitrary scrapping of legislation that protects the same from unscrupulous and lopsided development needs to be guarded against. In a democracy, where people's lives depend heavily on the sea and its by-products, it works best to take the interests of the locals into consideration before passing legislations. That probably is the only way in which changes carried out will last as intended. Otherwise, they are prone to violent contradictions, drastic alterations, and/or subsequent withdrawals.The writer is Editor, The Resources, an editorial and digital content provider