Like many another costly project in Mumbai of dubious value, the Western Coastal Road (WCR) is yet another project that will have massive costs and yet do virtually nothing for Mumbai’s citizens — except, in this case, the tiny handful that travel only by car. Sadly, our citizens are either too docile (the poor) or too complicit (the rich) to question the government’s choices.
Every infrastructure project in the city should be looked at keeping the following in mind:
(a) Its long-term impact on the development of the city
(b) The numbers of people who benefit from it
(c) The income class of the people who benefit
(d) Its priority in the list of city projects
(e) Its cost and how it can be funded
In approving the WCR, the Government of Maharashtra seems to have overlooked each of these considerations. In regard to long-term impact, the WCR will further deepen the divide between the prosperous western edge and the rest of the city. The western edge already has real estate prices that are among the highest in the world. The experience of cities all over the world has been that it is important to keep a balance of different income groups spread throughout the city. Cities that ignored this have suffered. Paris constructed housing for the poor on its perimeter and suffered severe riots. Property prices will inevitably vary across a city, but taking measures that aggravate the difference is bad policy.
Investment attracts investment. Public infrastructure investment inevitably attracts population and further private investment by way of property development. The temptation to build new residential blocks and hotels with a great and unobstructed sea view will be impossible to resist. And let us not delude ourselves, the accommodation in these new Marine Drives will naturally be at the highest possible prices. Of course the scheme as presented today shows extensive green areas, both between the road and the existing edge of the land and at the places where new offshore geometric intersections are laid out to connect with feeder roads. Such green areas will not remain green for very long. One does not need to look beyond what has happened to the already minimal green areas in the city to know what the fate of these new green areas will be.
The WCR is planned as two lanes each way. So it is really meant for cars only. Whether you say so or not, that is the way it will be. The reality of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link is that buses are not allowed on it. So it will be with the WCR. Let us not forget that the new road will be on the extreme western edge of Mumbai. To get anywhere else in Mumbai, you will have to turn off the WCR and enter one of the east-west cross roads, already too narrow and too crowded to cope with more traffic from the WCR. So the WCR will truly serve only those who live along it and have their offices, clubs and restaurants also along the same WCR. This super-wealthy minority will then be able to zip up and down the WCR, from home to office to restaurant to office to gym to club and home again, all without touching the rest of the city.
Incidentally, there cannot be bus stops along the route of the WCR, because where will the bus travellers go from the bus stop? The only users of such bus stops would be servants in the high value buildings or hotels alongside.
A recent transport study showed that 52% of all trips in the city are by walking. Of the vehicular trips, 5% are by car. Overall, 2.2% of daily trips in Mumbai are by car. More than half of these are surely along the eastern and central parts of Mumbai. So perhaps less than 1% of daily trips might exploit the benefit of the WCR. So is this massive investment for the exclusive benefit of that tiny handful? Or are there sideshows going on we know nothing about? Including, of course, the promise of future builders’ profits.
Worst of all, the project adds no new land to the city. What the city needs instead is rapid transit projects that extend its transport systems into as yet untouched areas, and that add new land to the city, on which to locate new homes and new jobs. This is the only way we can hope to have affordable housing for the millions who currently live in slums.
To put it plainly, the outstanding merit of the Western Coastal Road seems to be that it is a high value project, and therefore much loved by our political decision makers. It also has the virtue of not opening up more land, thus maintaining land scarcity and its consequent high value, which is a top priority consideration for builders. That it does nothing for 99% of Mumbai’s citizens is neither here nor there — as long as, like so many other projects, people can be fooled into believing it is all for their benefit and no other considerations apply.
(Shirish Patel is a civil engineer, urban planner and founder of Shirish Patel and Associates, a civic engineering company)