What does the future hold for Mumbai's Eastern Waterfront?

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 3 November 2014

Mumbai is one of those cities with enviable natural assets. Surrounded by water on three sides, the land-starved city has an enormous 222-kilometer coastline, and before the massive urbanization and development of the last couple of decades, was lush with mangroves, palm trees, migratory birds, and fisheries. Recent movements to reclaim the city's waterfront have resulted in two promenades totaling three kilometers along the Arabian Sea in the suburb of Bandra. The westward-facing seaside paths are rare public spaces that bring both rich and poor together.

Activists are calling for more such public spaces along the coastline, but the valuable waterfront land has the potential to be gobbled up by enterprising developers eager to build luxury towers and malls. "The absence of a master plan for development of the waterfronts has encouraged the rich and the powerful to manipulate and grab land along the coast, thus gradually depleting the city of its most vital open spaces," writes P.K. Das, a Mumbai architect who has led the recapturing of the western coastline. The city learned this lesson when the former mill lands in a central area of the city, which prominent city architects, planners, and social activists argued should be made into affordable housing and public spaces, were sold off to developers. Now, the area is dotted with malls that house Gucci and Donna Karan, five-star hotels, and luxury office and residential towers. The loss to the city, particularly the poor, is one many still mourn.

For this reason, planners are keeping vigilant watch over one of the city's last large-scale areas with the potential for sharkish redevelopment. The Eastern Waterfront, though just a kilometer from the famed Marine Drive on the west side — also known as "the Queen's necklace" — has little of the glamour of its opposite coast. The area once boasted a thriving dockland and trading area, which have since moved to more modern ports. The area — 1,800 acres and 30 kilometers of coastline — is owned by the Mumbai Port Trust, which was formed in 1873 to facilitate trade with Britain. Today, the land is only partly used for its ports; the other areas are used for many informal industries that have cropped up, including ship breaking and scrapping. Laborers working in the area have built up informal housing for themselves.

The area is largely desolate and abandoned, but all that has been changing since a highway opened up recently linking the eastern suburbs to the main business district in the southern tip of Mumbai. The transportation links, previously non-existent for the area, have put the Eastern Waterfront back on the map. And discussion about what should happen to the docklands has resurfaced.

Das has a timely idea (the city is working on its Development Plan): better land use planning of these areas to safeguard the city's most beautiful asset and spaces. "Public spaces in Mumbai should be integrated structurally into the larger programs for the city's development, with special emphasis on its social and environmental constitution. Clearly, a comprehensive plan for the city's public spaces is absolutely necessary."

Photo: Mike Smith

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