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Maharashtra villages fear road to city will destroy business

New development plans for the 'Dharavi Bhet' envisage a bridge link that could end the area’s relative isolation from the suburban sprawl across the creek. But most residents of the villages do not want the bridge. Manoj R Nair writes.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2013 11:22 IST

Every morning, hundreds of villagers from Gorai, Manori and other small hamlets, scattered across the sea-hemmed land that is locally called ‘Dharavi Bhet’, leave their homes carrying baskets of bitter gourds, pumpkins and other vegetables of the season to markets in Malad and Borivali.

In October, when the paddy crop matures, they take freshly polished rice to sell. Joining them are fishermen with the night’s catch. To travel to these markets, these small traders catch rickety ferries from two jetties abutting the creek separating their peninsula from Mumbai’s burgeoning suburbs.

The jetties are dilapidated and the boat service is erratic. New development plans for the area envisages a bridge link that could end the area’s relative isolation from the suburban sprawl across the creek. The bridge will also make the daily commute to Mumbai easier for the vegetable farmers and fishermen. So, one would think that the villagers would welcome the bridge project.

But most residents of the villages do not want the bridge. They fear that a road-link to the city will destroy their area’s natural landscape and culture. Noel Kinny of the Machchimar Sahakari Sanstha, a group representing fishermen, said, “Our biggest fear about the bridge is that it will end our centuries-old way of life,” said Kinny.

“These are last villages left in the city. If the creek had not separated us from the rest of the city, there would not have been any open land here,” said Lourdes D’Souza, secretary of the Dharavi Beth Bachao Samiti, one of the groups spearheading the agitation against recent plans to create a ‘tourism zone’ in the area.

The tourism plan is one of the several such schemes that have plotted to get hold of one of the last stretches of open land around Mumbai. The first such plan was a Special Economic Zone spread over 2,500 acres. However, protests by local residents meant that plans for the project faded away by 2009, three years after it was announced.

Then another scheme – The Regional Plan, 1996-2011, for Mumbai Metropolitan Region – talked about a ‘Recreation and Tourism Development Zone’. Around 43 square kilometres of land in 8 villages, two of them within Mumbai municipal limits, were notified for the project. This plan has more or less been abandoned after opposition. Meanwhile, the demarcation of the area’s mangrove forests as protected areas substantially reduced the land that can ever be developed from about 8,000 to 4500 acres.

According to Joseph Gonsalves of the Dharavi Beth Bachao Samiti, in 2010, villagers filed 17,000 objections against schemes to develop the area. In 2011, they sent 14,000 protest letters to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the planning agency. “Despite our continued opposition, roads and new jetties continue to be built,” said Gonsalves. “The plans are being made without consulting the residents of the area.”

One nine-meter-wide coastal road that has been planned will cut across fishing villages and ancient churches, according to Gonsalves, a resident of Uttan, one of the villages affected by the plans. The suspicion that villagers are being kept out of discussions for the area’s development has grown after notification for the ‘tourism zone’ was published in an English-language business newspaper though most people in the area are familiar with Marathi.

Groups opposing the tourism zone say they are not against development. There are already small resorts along the beaches. Opponents of the government’s big tourism plans think that these small businesses will be ruined by the latest plans. “We want the jetties to be repaired and modernised; this is the development we want. Anything else will uproot us,” said D’Souza.

Two weeks ago, groups opposing the tourism project held a meeting in the area. While many groups from outside Mumbai turned up for the meeting, most villagers, distracted by the presence of government surveyors who had come to measure their land, could not attend it. On Sunday, they are planning to meet at a church in Uttan.