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The Mumbai Project: A leap across the Arabian sea

India's first sea bridge is an engineering marvel: 5.6 km of high-speed expressway across the sea. Just don't make global comparisons. China's thrown up six such bridges in just five years, the latest in seven months. Madhurima Nandy reports... Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:23 IST
Madhurima Nandy

It will reduce a 40-minute crawl to a 7-minute high-speed ride — by 2009. Four years behind schedule, India’s first sea bridge is an engineering marvel: 5.6 km of high-speed expressway across the sea. Just don’t make global comparisons. China’s thrown up six such bridges in just five years, the latest in seven months. (

Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

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“There is no excuse for delaying a project. Across the world, there are penalties if you don’t finish a project on schedule. There are several sealink projects in China and there has been no delay”

-- Victor Cheung, senior consultant, Halcrow, Shanghai



It is 8 am and the November sun is already strong. About 200 workers in blue hard-hats assemble on two windswept strips of concrete, resting on piers 94-feet above the Arabian Sea. Pinpoint information on today’s tides along Mumbai’s coasts has just arrived — from the Netherlands. Chief engineer Devendra Sharma and his team give a brief pep talk to the workers gathered from West Bengal, Orissa and Punjab as they prepare to build the soaring central tower — 45 storeys high — that will hold in place the steel cables of the 5.6-km Bandra-Worli Sealink.

“This is the experience of a life-time,” said Sharma, who works for Hindustan Construction Corporation (HCC), the project contractor. His last job: building an atomic power station in Rajasthan.

With technology from across the world and engineers from seven countries, India’s first bridge across the sea is today little more than a shimmering mirage for frustrated commuters. They see it every day as they sit in traffic-choked Mahim Causeway, a 1930s colonial-era bridge that is today the only link between Mumbai’s sprawling, prosperous western suburbs and its southern business heart.

In a city that adds over 500 vehicles every day, the Sealink is the only hope for drivers who must cross 23 signals between Bandra and Worli. When it opens it will carry 90,000 of the 1.30 lakh vehicles that now cross Mahim Causeway, promising to reduce a 40-minute crawl to a 7-minute high-speed ride — if it gets built by the end of 2008.

While Mumbai struggles to resolve squabbles over money between the state government and the contractor, China has built six sea-bridges over the past five years. Another three are under construction. The 5-km long Second Severn Crossing in the UK, with a 450-m-long cable-stayed main bridge, similar to the Bandra-Worli Sealink, was completed in four years. Another one in Denmark, the 7.5 km Oresund sea-bridge, was functional in four-and-a-half years.

Conceived in the 1990s and contracted in 2000, the Bandra-Worli sealink is already four years behind schedule but for Mumbai, this is the big one, the visible evidence of the Rs- 43,000 crore makeover dream. For nearly 17 years, the state government has talked of a 20-km long Western Freeway, a ring of expressways skimming the western coast, including the Bandra-Worli Sea link and the Worli-Nariman Point Sealink, which is still on paper. The booming western seaboard is not just home to the newly prosperous but to the exploding middle class and thousands of companies and people that drive the city's new economy: entertainment, infotech, finance.

Andrew Yeoward, senior project consultant with UK-based consultancy firm Halcrow said China does sea bridges like no other country. "There are no project delays in China,” Yeoward, who has been involved with several sea bridges across the world, told HT. “There is a lot of prestige attached with each project and completing them on time is a given.”

The 7.6-km-long Sutong sea-bridge is a perfect example of how quickly China executes projects. Built across the Yangtze river to connect the two prosperous cities of Suzhou and Nantong in eastern China, the Sutong bridge was completed in an extraordinary seven months.

On the global map, the Bandra-Worli Sealink is a just another bridge across the sea. “There is no particular difficulty in building this sea-bridge,” said Yeoward. “There are many such bridges are being built across the globe.”

For Amit Wadhwa (30), a business analyst with a production house at Worli Naka, the incomplete sealink is frustrating. “I spend at least 50 minutes going to work and an hour on my way home in the evening,” said Wadhwa, who travels 20 km every day and spends nearly Rs 3,000 on fuel every month.
Wadhwa can’t wait to use the sea route and wouldn’t mind paying the expected daily toll of Rs 70. “The sealink would cut down my travel time by more than half and the distance by nearly 6 km everyday,” he said.

Transport experts say the 80-year-old bridge — concrete, on stone pillars — across the1.2-km-long Mahim Causeway, now needs to be rebuilt. The original Causeway was built in the 1840s to connect Mahim to Bandra, then part of the island of Salsette. In the 1930s, the Causeway was rebuilt into a bridge.
“Once the Bandra-Worli sealink is built, the Mahim bridge can be rebuilt,” said R K Jha, former managing director of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation. “A few years , the state government had thought of rebuilding the Mahim bridge but couldn’t go ahead because it couldn’t afford to block the stretch to traffic.”

Commuters on the rapidly gridlocking western link roads regard the Sealink as a magic wand. Many have noticed the grand central tower rising above the concrete decks inching towards each from north and south. Cables spiraling out of the tower will hold the main section of the deck in place. This is where the bridge is now stuck: Cables need to be imported from China, and the contractor says it has no money.

Nearly Rs 889 crore has already been spent on the project, more than double the original contract of Rs 400 crore. The contractor has received Rs 248 crore. “We need at least Rs 240 crore to begin the cable work on the main bridge from the Bandra end,” said Ajit Gulabchand, Chairman of HCC.

The monsoon has receded and the sea is particularly calm. Despite the squabbles, 2,500 workers have begun work around the clock. Mumbai can only hope they don’t have to work beyond 2008.

Number crunching:

Total weight of the bridge: 670,000 tons (equal to 50,000 African elephants)
90,000 tons of cement used
40,000 tons of steel used
Length of wires used: 38,000 km = circumference of the earth

The long, winding road

The project contract was signed on October 1, 2000, but the construction site at Bandra Reclamation was handed over to the contractor in May 2001.

New consultants. Svedrup Consultants were appointed at the time of awarding of the project contract. Half way through in 2003, the state replaced them with Dar Consultants. Both are from the UK.

Design changes. The basic design of the Sealink was changed after local fishermen protested. The Worli end was moved away from a fishing village, and the main Bandra cable-stayed bridge was changed from a single towered, eight-lane bridge to a double towered, two four-lane bridges.

Money squabble. Contractors Hindustan Construction says it has already spent Rs 889 crore on the project till date but has received only Rs 248 crore from MSRDC. The original project contract was worth Rs 400 crore.

2003. No, 2006. No, … Initially, the project was to complete construction by 2003. Then, it was extended till 2006-end. The new deadline is mid-2008, but that seems unrealistic.

The buck stops here

“Only by 2009”

Sitting in his plush Vikhroli office, Ajit Gulabchand, chairman and managing director of 81-year-old construction firm Hindustan Construction Company dimissed all allegations that he’s delaying the Sealink. “I want to complete it,” he told HT. “But only if the government gives me the money the project needs.”

The government claims the sealink will be open by April-2008. You tell us: When will Mumbai's first Sealink actually open?
A: If the government sanctions the money now, the Sealink cannot ready before the beginning of 2009. It is not possible to complete the work left by next year. But each month’s delay postpones the deadline by another month.

The project has been a victim of bickering between the government and contractor.
A: From the beginning, HCC has been sincere in its effort to execute the project. But there have been too many changes from the government. At least 75 per cent of the project has been changed. How does one work with a value estimated 7 years ago?

How important is this project for your company?
It is prestigious for HCC. It is the first project of its kind in India and Mumbai needs the Sealink at the earliest. The government doesn’t realise how difficult it is for people to commute between the suburbs and south Mumbai every day. Then again, what's the point of doing a project when you don't make any money out of it?

Changing your life. The 5.6-km bridge from Bandra to Worli will reduce a 40-minute commute to 7 minutes, avoiding 23 traffic signals. It will transform life for the newly rich and the middle class who live in the western suburbs, also home to Mumbai’s new economy: entertainment, infotech and finance.

Is this enough?

**Not quite. The Bandra-Worli sealink is only a small part of the Western Freeway project, a 20-km string for expressways from Bandra to Nariman Point. Only when its second phase is built, 13.75 km from Worli to Nariman Point, will it unclog Mumbai’s western commute.

**Even if the Bandra Sealink opens by 2009, the Worli-Nariman sea-bridge would have probably just taken off. It it’s on schedule it will open by end-2012.

**It’s vital to build the flyover over Peddar Road, stopped because the elite who live there don’t want it. The flyover needs to come up before the sealink is complete so it can tackle the traffic tumbling out from Worli seaface.

For more details: Check out the special on The Mumbai Project