For over 250 years, Mumbai’s eastern seafront has remained closed to its citizens and detached from the rest of the city.
Since Lowjee Nusserwanjee Wadia, then the master shipbuilder of Bombay, and his brother Sorabji, built the country’s first dry dock in 1750, and the port expanded and subsequently declined in its importance, Mumbai’s natural harbour on its eastern side is sought to be opened up and reclaimed into the city’s pulsating life.
With 28km and a portion of the 1,800 acres potentially unlocked, it is a rare chance to not only re-build, but also dramatically transform the space-starved city. After the misadventure of the textile mills land, sprawled across central Mumbai adding up to nearly 600 acres, which was re- developed as private commercial and residential space, the eastern waterfront would be the city’s second chance to secure land for public purposes. Mumbai could get tens of Oval Maidans and water transport facilities connecting to areas across the harbour.
The 12-year-old proposals to turn this almost-forgotten area into a vastly more productive space were renewed last month when Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for shipping and transport, announced that he had set up a committee to plan and implement the re-development.
Rani Jadhav, former Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) chairperson, was appointed the head of the committee with architect Hafeez Contractor and urban planner-architect Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Design Research Institute as members. The committee has three months to submit its report.
Gadkari declared that the plan would be “to build a cruise terminal at the port for passengers and sea planes, a 500-room floating hotel, four floating restaurants, museums, commercial centres, a floating helipad, and a Mumbai Eye modelled after the London Eye near the sea”. All these suggestions have one focus: commercial development.
Urban planners say this should be made more comprehensive to include open public space for all Mumbaiites and affordable housing stock too. This calls for a master plan, they say.
“The western waterfront not having a master plan for its development encouraged the rich and powerful to manipulate and grab prime land along the coast. Bit by bit, this depleted the city of its most vital open space, the seafront, and turned public space private. This must not happen with the eastern waterfront,” said PK Das, architect and urban planner, who pencilled inclusive plans for Juhu and Bandra waterfronts.
“Mumbai has miserable standards of environment, public amenities and open spaces. If this is done right, the city could breathe again,” said Aneerudha Paul, urban designer and director of the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies. Paul had co-authored a detailed study on the eastern waterfront in 2000.
The MbPT, which owns and manages vast tracts of the 1,800 acres, has invited ideas and suggestions from the public. MbPT chairperson Ravi Parmar, said, “The port is committed to ensuring that the city gains from these lands,” he said. Paul, like other planners, is sceptical.
In a city whose identity revolves around realty, the apprehension is that, if not handled well, the eastern waterfront land could meet the same fate as that of the textile mills: occupied by land-sharks eyeing the sea-facing acres purely for commercial exploitation.
There are several obstacles here. The port has thousands of tenancies, many of whom will have to be evicted for the land to be freed up and the port’s underconstruction Rs1,500-crore offshore container terminal has to be integrated, among other issues.
Meera Sanyal, banker-turned-politician, who contested the general election as an AAP candidate from Mumbai south, offered a solution. “Most of the MbPT land is with various companies on leases, which have expired. We can get them to vacate or ask them to build public amenities in return for their tenancy rights.” According to Paul, to ensure that the mill lands’ episode is not repeated, citizens must participate to negate the vested interests that may be eyeing these plots. Few cities have the luxury to transform themselves over centuries. After decades of unplanned development, largely led by the real-estate lobby, the re-development of the eastern waterfront could, if handled well, turn out to be the single most significant factor in turning the city around.