Driving down along the east of the city’s Harbour Line from Wadala to Sandhurst Road can be an eerie experience. A long roadway shaded by a half-built flyover, a dust-blurred view of ageing warehouses, truck drivers and sun-baked labourers the only people in sight, a distinctive background score of heavy clanging from docks and oil refineries that line a seafront you can’t see: this is an under-explored stretch of Mumbai that seems caught in a time-warp.
This eastern waterfront of the city, most of which is owned and heavily guarded by the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), holds perhaps the last remnants of Mumbai’s history as a busy trading port. Over the years, commercial activity on the port has reduced significantly and the stretch, covering nearly 1,860 acres of land, has been one of the most coveted and hotly contested spaces in a saturated city bursting from its seams.
Two weeks ago, the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO) announced its plans to open up the Navi Mumbai waterfront to the public by building the state’s first marina — a harbour for boats and yachts — there. For most urban planners in the city, this move brings the spotlight back on the island city’s 28 km-long eastern coastal front, which has been an inaccessible, prohibited area for decades but which they believe can be used for creating housing, workspace, open areas and other public spaces. “Mumbai has the luxury of two waterfronts, of which one is inaccessible,” says city-based economist Ajit Ranade. “If unlocked, the eastern waterfront could become a source of dynamic economic activity.”
The Mumbai port, which comprises Colaba’s Sassoon Dock, Indira Dock at Ballard Pier and the Prince’s & Victoria Docks further north, was once a thriving centre for cotton trade. With the fall of the city’s textile mills and the consequent decline in cotton trading nearly three decades ago, the port has been used “sub-optimally”, says architect Anirudh Paul, director of the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture. The jetties and yards are now used for fishing, ship breaking, steel processing and temporary storage of the limited coal, clay or cotton goods that are still traded through Mumbai.
In 2004, Paul, along with the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) and architect Rahul Mehrotra, published A Study of the Eastern Waterfront of Mumbai, a survey offering a detailed analysis of the area’s demographics. The book claims that only 50% of the waterfront is now used for port activities. The city’s municipal corporation has reserved 6% of the Port Trust land for public uses, but just 1% is actually open to the public, in the form of Ballard Estate, Bhaucha Dhakka at Mazgaon and the Sewri mud flats.
“If the rest of the land is also released, it would be a great opportunity to develop a public mass water transport system, housing or just allow citizens to enjoy Mumbai’s existence as an island,” says UDRI director Pankaj Joshi.
On the waterfront
This is one of the few sectors on the eastern waterfront that the MbPT leased out for commercial uses, and is now a quiet heritage precinct housing several corporate headquarters. The seafront is a prohibited area taken up by the naval dockyard. A walk around the precinct, however, will reveal some quaint landmarks.
A stone’s throw away from the large green gate of Indira Dock, for instance, is the Ballard Bunder Gatehouse, a short stone structure built in the neo-classical style as a tribute to the rest of the buildings in Ballard Estate.
Opposite the Gatehouse, the brown stone buildings of Sprott Street are brightened by the red-and-white entrance to the 90-year-old Brittania & Co restaurant, known for its Parsi dhansak and unique Iranian berry pulao. “When my father started the restaurant, it served only continental food for British officers,” says owner Boman Kohinoor, who is as old as Brittania itself.
Further away, the Prince of Wales Seamen’s Club and various lanes named after ports such as Cochin, Calicut and Goa, serve as a reminder of Mumbai’s bustling sea-trading past. The strongest remnant of the past is Hamilton Studios, a photography studio started by the Sassoons in 1928 and run by Ranjit Madhavji and his daughter since 1958. “We have left everything in the studio as it always was,” says Madhavji.
The road from Mazgaon Docks to Bhaucha Dhakka — also known as Ferry Wharf — is as deserted and quiet as the wharf itself.
Essentially a jetty for ferries going every hour to Mora (Uran) and Rewas (Alibaug), Bhaucha Dhakka is peopled mainly by travellers from lower and middle-classes who commute from their villages to the city every day for work. The jetty is guarded by the Port Trust officials and com-
prises a small bus depot and a large, tin-roofed shed under which a handful of tea and refreshment stalls serve passengers waiting for their ride.
“This is also a jetty from which merchant navy crewmen board barges heading towards big ships anchored deeper in the port,” says Girish Thakur, 31, a navigator on a merchant ship.
Most ships today, explains Thakur, now head straight to the JNPT port at Nhava-Sheva, because Mumbai’s eastern port, with a depth of 11.1 metres, is no longer deep enough for today’s ships, which require a port depth of at least 16 metres.
However, the Port Trust is also filling up a section of the bay near Ferry Wharf to build a new island jetty for some ship, says Thakur.
Adjacent to the wharf is
another, more derelict jetty where local fishermen have been docking their boats for decades. “Up till eight or ten years ago, Bhaucha Dhakka had ferries going up to Elephanta Caves,” says Kundalik Mayekar, who
runs a refreshment stall inside the Bhaucha Dhakka shed.
“But the smell of the fish drove tourists away, so the service was relocated to Apollo Bunder.”
from Reay Road to Cotton Green
The vast stretches of land to the east of Reay Road and Cotton Green seem like a dusty grid of long brick sheds, some boarded up or broken down, others stacked with nondescript gunny sacks. These 200-odd warehouses were built by wealthy cotton traders in the 1920s for the storage of cotton bales to be exported to Manchester. Eventually, as the trade declined, so did the businesses active on the port’s jetties. To the east of the cotton depot, for instance, is a charcoal and grain depot that is now rarely used.
Further south are the once-famous rows of warehouses such as Reti Bunder, Kawla Bunder, Lakdi Bunder and Darukhana, for trade in sand, clay tiles, wood and gunpowder respectively. “Most of this trade is in decay now,” says UDRI director Pankaj Joshi. Many of those warehouses are now hubs for ship breaking, known to be an environmentally hazardous activity.
Some winters ago, the sleepy village of Sewri koliwada woke up to a new annual reality: flamingo tourism. In the past decade, the pink-feathered birds have been attracting streams of nature lovers to the jetty on the Sewri mudflats, and as they trudge through the sparsely populated koliwada to get there, they have given locals a small boost to their daily businesses.
Once a fishing village, the koliwada now houses ambitious, English-educated youngsters, many of who work in the corporate sector.
“Except for the village huts which were replaced by buildings when I was a child, this village has remained largely the same all these years,” says Bashir Khalil, 57, a watch repairman who was born and raised in the koliwada. Outside the village, the oil refineries around the mud flats changed hands from one company to another over the years. Waris Ali, Khalil’s uncle, also remembers the days in the 1940s when Bollywood producer Sohrab Modi’s film studio, Minerva Movietone, ran from near the village. “Actors such as Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar would come walking down the road to go to the studio,” says Ali. The studio shut down after 1952.
Amidst all the seclusion of Sewri’s quaint jetty and koliwada is an even more secluded spot: the Sewri Fort, a small stone structure from the 1740s built on a hill top. The Fort was closed to the public up till five years ago, and since then, local youth use it as secret hideout for smoking hookahs, playing cricket or simply holding hands with a sweetheart. “The fort also offers a great view of the mud flats and the flamingos.”