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The Mumbai Project: Our lost waterfronts, and how to find them

Mumbai takes its waste to its waterfront and abuses its most valuable natural asset, the 62-km coastline that runs from Colaba to Versova on the west, and to Wadala on the east. Chitrangada Choudhury finds out.Talk to us...Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:26 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury
Chitrangada Choudhury
Hindustan Times

“Whether for ritual or recreation, people seek the water's edge. Urban waterfronts are important and special assets and that, when redeveloped, they often contribute to healthy traditional communities.” - Ann Breen, Founder of The Waterfront Centre in Boston, in her book Waterfronts: Cities Reclaim their Edge


Check out the special on The Mumbai Project


On a stretch of grimy sand in north-west Mumbai, pipes are belching waste into the fetid sea. At Gorai creek on the city’s northern fringe, a mountain of garbage, a quarter of a century old, rots by the sea. The first is home to the Bandra Effluent Pumping Station; the second the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) 1.7 million-ton Gorai Dumpyard.

Sydney has its Darling Harbour and London its galleries, restaurants and acres of green on the banks of the Thames but Mumbai — the city by the Arabian Sea, defined as much by its global aspirations as its coastline — takes its waste to its waterfront. It abuses its most valuable natural asset, the 62-km coastline that runs from Colaba to Versova on the west, and to Wadala on the east.

“We do not have the great maidans of Delhi and Kolkata. The waterfronts are our only relief, but we treat them like the city’s backyard,” says P.K. Das, an architect involved in grassroots movements to reclaim public waterfronts in Bandra and Juhu.

Every morning and evening, crowds escape this megapolis bursting with 14 million people to flock to the signature Marine Drive, and Worli seaface. It’s not so bad there. Further north, others seek out the internationally feted waterfront restoration project of the Bandra Bandstand, and the cleaned-up, revivified strip of sand that is Juhu beach. Together, these bits where land meets sea account for under a fifth of Mumbai’s waterfront.

What about the rest?

The remaining coastline is cordoned off by elite housing and office blocks, 300-year-old marooned fishing villages and slum colonies, 19th century navy and port facilities, empty sprawling warehouses and encroached Portuguese-era forts, factories manufacturing textile and fertilisers and merchants selling bamboo, a civic garbage dump and a sewage treatment plant. The city’s greatest physical asset is a showcase of exclusion, and of neglect.

When architect Das took a plan to the BMC with parliamentarian Shabana Azmi a decade ago for enhancing the Juhu waterfront, they discovered that a four-km stretch of beach had as many as five landlords, from the Mumbai Collector and the civic body to the department of environment and the Airports Authority of India.

As with much of the city’s other planning, myriad authorities are in charge of Mumbai’s shoreline, their tangle only ensuring collective disregard.

Mumbai does not have to look too far for inspiration on how it could engage its coastline. West Asian cities like Abu Dhabi have world-famous cornices — kilometres of beachfront open to the public to walk, read and play.

Manoj Nair of the Dubai-based Property Weekly says that in West Asia, governments have taken the lead, organising competitions and selecting the best waterfront plans.

“There is no single authority, but most of the concerned master developers are government-owned or has a sizeable stake held by it,” he says. “They are primarily good revenue earners. The intention is to draw the wealthy investors into self-contained communities and to create a destination by itself, once all the features are in place.”
In a parallel that might be more relevant to the city’s 1800-acre swathe of port land, London successfully regenerated its derelict dock lands, creating developments like the Canary Wharf, a buzzing business district housing offices of the new economy, and close to a lakh workers.

Waterfronts across the world, according to the Washington-based Waterfront Centre that hands out awards to the best waterfronts of the world every year, are witnessing profound change today. Civic governments are reinventing them, keen to turn them into improved public spaces for citizens.

Is Mumbai likely to follow suit?

“I am afraid not,” says Sanjay Ubale, Secretary (Special Projects), and the man entrusted with an overarching Mumbai Makeover brief.

For the past three years, a committee anchored by Ubale has been looking at a comprehensive plan for the 21 km waterfront on Mumbai’s east — almost all of it owned by the Mumbai Port Trust — and has achieved little consensus, with the port arguing it needs all the land for its own activities.

In August, the Planning Commission instructed the Mumbai port to share 15 per cent of its land with the city for “development”. But Ubale says this might not necessarily translate into new waterfronts opening up to the public.
Das, who is now working with the BMC to rejuvenate a km of beachfront at Dadar, says the current neglect of our waterfront could well be a thing of the past, with civic will spurred by public pressure.

“The areas adjoining the waterfronts must be marked off as public spaces, and a single Mumbai Waterfront Development Authority created with comprehensive charge.” The port, which owns over 20 km of the eastern waterfront, Das says, “while keeping its land, should draw up a comprehensive land management plan, and spin revenues from sea-facing offices, while opening up the coastline for the public.”

There are also environmental laws to contend with. For example, the state will have to lobby with the Centre for relaxation of the Coastal Regulatory Zone rules, which currently bar development — this could even mean a toilet block to service users of a promenade — within 500 metres of the shoreline.

The city’s waterfronts

Some stretches along the western coastline are being beautified, though none can compare to waterfronts in cities like London or Sydney. The east coast is largely inaccessible

Juhu to Versova

The 4-km stretch of Juhu beach was cleaned up and food stalls relocated. The court-approved beautification plan had landscaped gardens and lawns, and work is underway. It will be ready by mid-2008. Versova’s beach is the Sagar Kutir slum colony. Locals are trying to get authorities to relocate slums, and create a public space.


The two promenades Mumbai can be proud of are in Bandra, at Bandstand and Carter Road. Residents’ groups, with the help of parliamentary funds, created and help maintain the two promenades. The Carter Road promenade also hosts public events and


The BMC has sanctioned a plan to restore a 1.5-km stretch of the coastline. This includes increasing the width of the beach from 5 metres to 50 metres.

Worli Seaface

Its 1.5 km waterfront is as popular as Marine Drive. The seaface does not have encroachments and is well-paved, but there are no beautification plans. Local groups fear it will be affected by traffic once the Bandra-Worli sealink gets operational.

Haji Ali

Trustees of the dargah have drawn up a conservation plan, but there’s nothing on the cards for the sea-facing stretch between Worli and Haji Ali.

South Mumbai Waterfronts

The Girgaum Chowpatty was Mumbai’s first beach to be cleaned up, in 2001. Hawkers were relocated and a high court-appointed Beach Committee now monitors all proposed development along the stretch. A private firm runs a Watersports Complex from a leased stretch.

The Marine Drive makeover started in 2005. A Rs 130-crore project with walkways and amphitheatre, work is expected to be complete by 2009.

The BMC has commissioned the creation of a 3-acre pedestrian plaza at the Gateway of India. The deadline for the 5-crore project is end-2008.

The buck stops here

Sanjay Ubale, Secretary (Special Projects)

Are Mumbaiites likely to have access to a better waterfront under the city’s makeover?
It does not seem likely in the near future. The Planning Commission has asked the Mumbai Port Trust to identify land, which it can share with the city, but it is not clear whether any of this will be along the coast.

Why cannot the government frame an overall waterfront development plan, which guarantees public access, and also generates commercial revenue?
We are quite conservative as far as exploiting the waterfront goes. Other cities, notably those in China, have managed to do far more with their coastline. Here the Coastal Regulatory Zone comes up, and it is a central law, so any waterfront development project will have to be taken to the Ministry of Environment for clearance.

Mumbai has neither the great maidans of Kolkata nor the public parks of Delhi. But it is blessed with a 62-km-long waterfront. The Mumbaikar can access under a fifth of this. A vision for the city’s edge could provide badly needed public space, and spin revenues for the government.

Is this enough?

The BMC has just cleared a proposal to recreate a 1.5-km stretch of Dadar-Prabhadevi Chowpatty’s shoreline, increasing the beach’s width from 5 metres to 50 metres. Work is expected to begin in February 2008. The stretch will be equipped with a food court and two promenades, and existing gardens will be redeveloped. But there are stretches further north in Versova, and all along on the east, for which there is still no plan.

The Marine Drive makeover

A grand two-phase Rs 130 crore plan to refurbish the Marine drive was launched by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority in 2005.

Plans include new walkways and sea walls, public parks, and an amphitheatre at the southern end, and restoration of the Art Deco buildings that line Queen's Necklace.

The project has faced opposition from the heritage committee, a high-court appointed committee, political parties and residents’ groups, who have raised questions over the second phase.

Ratan Batliboi, whose firm has designed and is implementing the makeover, said that the project will be over by 2009, if all clearances are in place, and work can progress as planned.

For more details


Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 03:14 IST