Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bridge across forever

This piece appeared on the debut issue of the Hafta Mag. The photo below is courtesy Gurudutt Mohite (thanks!!). My own set of pictures of the BWSL from Bandstand can be found here.

Bridge across forever

Sunsets in Mumbai won’t be the same again. At least for those watching it between Bandra and Worli. It’s hard to miss the pillars and the cranes jutting out of Bandra Reclamation which represent one of the most ambitious, and controversial, projects that the Maharashtra State Government has undertaken – the Bandra Worli Sealink (BWSL).

Mean streets
In its final form the BWSL will be an eight-lane freeway running a length of 6km, which will start from Mahim interchange (remember that funny round-shaped structure at Bandra’s main junction?) and end at Worli Seaface. The BWSL will eventually connect to Nariman Point via the Western Freeway Sealink Project to complete an integrated road system connecting the island city to the suburbs. Hindustan Construction Company India (HCC) is executing the project that has been commissioned by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC).

One key feature of the BWSL is that it is a cable-stayed bridge, making it different from other bridges in and around Mumbai like the Vashi and Thane-Airoli bridges. Occupying pride of place on the BWSL is a 128 metre-tall (as high as a 40-storey building) central tower on the Bandra side which will hold a 600-metre long stretch of road. A shorter tower, about 55-metres tall, will hold a 350-metre long stretch on the Worli side. That’s as close as we’re getting to the Golden Gate. While 33% of work on the BWSL has been completed till date, you have to wait till April 2008 for zipping these mean streets.

What the project aims to resolve is something most Mumbaikars are painfully aware of. The ages taken to travel between the suburbs and the island city (or what the Mumbaikar knows simply as “town”). The BWSL’s website pegs the daily number of “passenger car units” (where one car is one PCU and a bus about 3 PCU) that ply on the hugely congested Mahim Causeway at 120,000 – a number which could do with some updation. The website also pegs the time taken to travel during peak hours from Mahim Causeway to Worli at 40 minutes – a number that definitely needs updation.

Bumpy ride
Controversy and delay have plagued virtually every major infrastructure development project in Mumbai. Some cases in point include development of the Mumbai Mill Lands, slum rehabilitation initiatives, the Mumbai Metro and the Shewri-Nhava Sheva Transharbour Link. Needless to say, the BWSL is no exception.

Originally planned as far back as 1983, some say even earlier, work on the BWSL was finally cleared in 1999. Between then and now, the cost of this project has doubled from Rs666crores to Rs1,306crores. Public Works Minister, Mr. Anil Deshmukh attributes the cost overrun to realignment of the bridge, made necessary to accommodate the Worli Fishermen who are among the most vocal critics of the project. The Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti has fought and lost a battle against the BWSL. Ttill this day, despite statements made by Mr. Deshmukh, the community remains unhappy over the project given its impact over their livelihoods.

Environmentalists form the other major community that over time has protested against the BWSL. 26/7 bought these concerns to the forefront. While the State Government conveniently blamed the weather for this disaster, warning signs were up a long time ago. Environmentalists like Bittu Sahgal, editor Sanctuary Asia, believe the BWSL was one such sign. As long as back as 2001, the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights had investigated the necessity of the BWSL. In an oft-quoted and ominous observation, they stated “By disturbing the natural course of events and redrawing the geography of the Mahim creek, the link has gradually upset the flow of effluents and floodwaters that drain in the Arabian Sea. Experts say that this turn may cause the Mithi River…to back up and cause inordinate flooding along adjacent areas”.

Another doubt over the BWSL is whether public money is better spent in improving mass transportation systems like local trains and buses. Or for that matter, does the BWSL encourage use of personal transport in a city increasingly getting clogged by more and more vehicles? To put things in perspective consider this – There were 1.1m registered vehicles in Mumbai in 2003 and an estimated 250 vehicles are said to be registered per day. A W. S. Atkins study commissioned by the MMRDA in 1994 stated that more than 80% of Mumbai’s commuters use public transport, as against 10% that use private transport.

Smoke on the water
Despite all these protests and doubts, the Maharashtra State Government remains firm in its resolve to complete the BWSL. Bids for phase II, the Worli-Nariman Point link, are also expected to be invited soon. And therein lies the key. Is there really a point to travelling on a flashy road cutting across the sea, only to be stuck all over again in a jam at Haji Ali? Or will the Peddar Road Flyover resolve that issue? But with this controversial flyover due to be completed only in 2009 and the Worli Nariman Point Sealink by 2010 (per stated deadlines, which, as we’ve been constantly reminded are prone to painful delays), there appears to be no easy road ahead for Mumbaikars.