Versova beach promenade work is in violation of CRZ rules?
Public works department (PWD) officials confirmed that an elevated walkway being constructed along Versova Beach will be completed in the next three to four months. The project, however, violates Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) instructions laid down at the time of recommending the project for Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) clearance in 2017.
Two PWD officials involved with the project, who did not wish to be identified, said they have been given a deadline to finish the work in time for diwali in November. “So far, it has been happening haphazardly. In April and May there was no labour available because of lockdown, and then the weather became rough. If a resident raises a complaint with a senior official, we are told to stop the work for a few days,” a site engineer said, adding they were not aware of any lapse in CRZ rules.
However, the minutes of an MCZMA meeting from June 2017 state that PWD has not been allowed to construct an elevated walkway or undertake any work of the scale that is currently happening on site. The sandy beach is a CRZ-I area where construction activities are prohibited, the coastal authority has noted in response to similar proposals by Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) and Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada), which have, at different times, sought to carry out “beautification” of the beachfront.
PWD was allowed to go ahead with the ostensible purpose of their proposal to reconstruct an existing 1.2-km anti-erosion bundh from Picnic Cottage till the Hindu crematorium before Versova Koliwada. This bundh, PWD had submitted, was essential for protecting properties along the stretch “from further damage caused by the tidal action”. MCZMA had categorically prohibited any promenade construction or reclamation of CRZ-1 area and allowed for the bundh to be remodelled into a sea-wall.
“But the current work of constructing a new wall, eight metres from the original bundh, has neither been recommended nor approved by MCZMA. The eight-metre gap has been backfilled to about 16 feet above sea level and the walkway is to be built over that, according to the plans we have obtained. What is expressly not permitted cannot be done by creative engineering. A walkway cannot be created in the garb of anti-erosion measures,” said environmentalist Zoru Bhatena, who has raised the issue with various authorities in three complaint letters dating to early 2020.
HT reached out to PWD secretary Anil Gaikwad but did not receive a response.
During multiple visits to the site this week, an HT team also noted that several feet of sand on the seaward side of the new RCC (reinforced concrete) wall have been buried under tetrapods, a process which began over a year and half ago, in contravention of MCZMA’s directions against reclaiming the beach. As a result, the once expansive coast of Versova beach — which was a nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles in 2018 — has been reduced to a small sliver of its former self, and the high-tide line has been significantly altered.
Environmentalists and fisherfolk from Versova Koliwada said what remains of the beach is also likely to disappear in a few years. “It will look like Marine Drive. All tetrapods and no sand,” said Deepak, a fisherman and boat owner who only gave his first name.
In a letter to state environment minister Aaditya Thackeray on Wednesday, city-based NGO Vanashakti pointed out that reclaiming the beach in this manner amounts to breach of public trust. “Beaches are the property of the commons... To eliminate its natural character is simply contrary to the Doctrine of Public Trust. Places of scenic beauty are to be kept free from transformation and degradation... People have an inalienable right to access natural spaces and it is unconstitutional to take that right away,” stated the letter authored by Stalin D, director of the NGO.
“What is being pushed as an anti-erosion project is only going to erode the beach further. When you reduce space for the water to spread on the shore, it will stagnate and pull back the sand. Erosion at Versova beach is in any case becoming a problem as tides have become stronger due to construction of coastal road. This business of reclaiming the sandy beach with tetrapods is also a way to mask the impact of the coastal road construction. Several experts had warned the civic body that other beaches will start eroding because of it,” said Stalin.
Narendra Toke, chairman of MCZMA and director, state environment department, did not respond to requests for comment. Manisha Mhaiskar, principal secretary of environment department and MCZMA member, could not be reached for comment despite attempts.