Coastal Road, MTHL bypassed critical environmental scrutiny: CAG audit

Published on Aug 11, 2022 12:34 AM IST

Mumbai: Two major infrastructure projects in the city, namely the Coastal Road and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), bypassed critical scrutiny under the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules, a new report by India’s apex public expenditure auditing body, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), has found

Mumbai, India - February 12, 2022: Aerial view of Coastal Road Project work in progress at Marine Drive, in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times) (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)
Mumbai, India - February 12, 2022: Aerial view of Coastal Road Project work in progress at Marine Drive, in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times) (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)
ByPrayag Arora-Desai

Mumbai: Two major infrastructure projects in the city, namely the Coastal Road and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), bypassed critical scrutiny under the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules, a new report by India’s apex public expenditure auditing body, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), has found. The projects are being carried out by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), respectively.

Despite the Coastal Road and the MTHL bridge having a significant impact on local ecology, they were not made to go through a process of multistage scrutiny by the Centre for obtaining environment clearance (EC), as mandated by the EIA rules, the CAG has pointed out in its Performance Audit on Conservation of Coastal Ecosystems report dated August 8.

Both projects were cleared solely on the basis of the Centre’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification and not under the EIA Notification. This was permitted by the Union environment ministry (MoEFCC) despite the fact that “projects by nature and scale of operation attracted the comprehensive EIA assessment in addition to CRZ clearances,” the CAG remarked.

While the Coastal Road was depicted in proposals as a “municipal road” (which is not covered under the EIA Notification) instead of as a state or national highway, the MTHL was depicted as a “standalone bridge”.

“Thus, the project [Coastal Road] which had otherwise significant environmental concerns bypassed the critical stage of public hearing as CRZ Notification does not provide for public consultation,” the CAG audit stated.

“[Depicting the MTHL as a standalone bridge] resulted in approving the project without Terms of Reference (ToRs) and public consultation, though the project included land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement of local residents,” the CAG audit stated.

The BMC and MMRDA had hired consultants to prepare EIA reports for both projects, they “lacked holistic ecological evaluation and failed to identify the key ecological risks and downplayed potential ecological impacts,” the CAG audit revealed.

However, neither EIA report would have had a bearing on it being cleared by the MoEFCC.

In the case of both projects, the CAG remarked that “there were deficiencies in the project approval mechanism of MoEF&CC... Clearances were granted to the Project Proponents though the projects failed to address the impact on vulnerable flora and fauna.”

The audit also noted that “the process of grant of clearances for setting up projects could not ensure fully that (they) would not have a detrimental impact on the coastal ecology.”

This is the second time that the Coastal Road has come under the CAG’s scanner. In a July 2021 report, the body questioned BMC over the sharp increase in the project’s construction cost from 252 crore per kilometre in 2011 to 1,274 crore in 2018. The CAG had also raised questions over spends amounting to 200 crore between April 2016 and March 2020. The report also said that a “detailed and proper analysis of traffic for Mumbai Coastal Road Project was not done”.

The BMC and MMRDA did not respond to queries on the CAG report.

Narendra Toke, member security, Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) said he was not aware of the CAG report and could only comment after he has read it.

“This CAG report, like the previous one that questioned the BMC’s traffic studies, confirms what critics of the Coastal Road project have been saying since 2016: that the project is counter-productive, based on lopsided studies, has been sanctioned by skirting public inputs and legal procedures, and is a planning disaster for Mumbai,” said Hussain Indorewala, urban researcher at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture.

The projects have also been criticised for using “outdated baseline data” in their reports. The Coastal Road was justified by authorities on the promise of “smoother traffic movement based on comprehensive Traffic Studies conducted for Mumbai Metropolitan Region in 2008.”

The MoEFCC approved the project in 2017 “without updating the baseline study and without taking into account the major infrastructural development projects in the vicinity during this period,” the CAG audit noted. Similarly, in the case of the MTHL, the CAG observed that the baseline data presented to clear the project “was outdated by four to seven years.”

Calling for the CAG to initiate focused audits for both projects, environmentalist Debi Goenka said, “This report has highlighted the sleight of hand used by statutory planning authorities to circumvent the CRZ and EIA notifications. The manner in which the MoEFCC and the Coastal Zone Management Authority functions has also been exposed. It is high time our Prime Minister takes the MoEFCC to task and ensures that India’s Climate Change goals are not allowed to be sabotaged.”

Another significant project in Mumbai -- the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Memorial at Nariman Point -- has also come under fire in this report, along with the Coastal Road. Referring to them, the CAG audit said, “The MoEF&CC amended the CRZ notification 2011 to allow for two specific development projects in the state of Maharashtra.”

“Modification of CRZ notifications for approval of specific projects not only sets a bad precedent but also defeats efforts to conserve coastal ecosystems,” the audit noted.

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