I like to call Bombay the largest one-street town in the world. 'One street' is an exaggeration, of course, but first time visitors to the city are invariably surprised at how often they go up and down the same roads. Any time a north-south connector is shut for repairs, rush hour traffic goes from slothful to virtually stationary.
On Monday, north bound cars were diverted from Pedder Road so a drain pipe could be repaired. The blockage was supposed to be in place for 45 days. Instead it lasted exactly one evening, before the government took a U-turn on the repair idea. This, after waiting a decade to get all the permissions required. The southern end of Pedder road lies at the bottom of Walkeshwar - Malabar Hill, home to ministers and billionaires, people with direct lines to the highest echelons of power. A few calls from these folk count for more than protests by tens of thousands of common citizens. You can't fob them off saying, these are just teething pains; they'll sort themselves out once drivers and traffic policemen get used to the new route.
While this fiasco was playing itself out, roadworks on another north-south artery were postponed as well. The demolition of a flyover at Lalbaug was was put off citing traffic congestion caused by the Pedder Road drainpipe repairs.
Over a decade ago, the administration decided to build a bridge along the coast to take pressure off city roads. The bridge was supposed to span the distance from Bandra, the southernmost of Bombay's 'suburbs', to Nariman Point, a downtown precinct that, in the 1990s, was home to many of the nation's most prestigious firms. Though Nariman Point is no longer the rental magnet it once was, the southern tip of Bombay remains an office hub, making the Western Freeway Sea Link a worthwhile project.
The initial plan for the bridge included a massive viewing tower with a revolving restaurant at its apex. Not only was in unclear what viewers in the viewing tower were supposed to view (Bombay isn't the prettiest city on earth, after all), there was no provision in the plan for parking. Ultimately, somebody in the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), realised that building a parking lot in the middle of the sea was inadvisable, and having people swim to the tower even more so, and scrapped the viewing gallery idea.
The making and changing of plans cost hundreds of millions of rupees and many months.
The next challenge came from fishermen, who claimed the distance between the bridge's pillars was insufficient to allow them to navigate safely through. In rough weather, boats were likely to dash against the concrete, endangering lives. Personally, I have never seen any such rough weather in Bombay outside of the monsoon, when kolis don't go out to sea, but the state government took the fishermen at their word, shifted the alignment of the bridge and put in a half kilometer long cable-stay section.
This change of plans cost billions of rupees and many years.
Then there were Public Interest Litigations by citizens groups and environmentalist activists, stoppages for non-payment of dues, contracts cancelled, new bids announced, new contracts signed. At the end of ten years, the first of three planned stages remains incomplete, the second is still at the bidding stage and the third, well, that's an absolute zinger.
Let's stick to the second phase for the moment. It will extend the Sea Link from Worli to Haji Ali. After this, it is unclear where vehicles will go. The original plan involved building a flyover traversing Pedder Road, but that was shot down by the same powerful people who got the repairs halted yesterday. Currently, planners are thinking of an elevated road above the racecourse, which looks like a bridge from nowhere to nowhere.
The most priceless bit of plan modification involves the final stage of the project, between Haji Ali and Nariman Point. The sea link here has been shelved because it will block the view of the Shivaji statue in the bay. What Shivaji statue, you ask. Well, there's no such statue right now, but the government's announced plans to build an artificial island on which will stand an equestrian bronze of the Maratha warrior rising a few feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. Why decide to put a statue in a place where there's been a bridge planned for years? Well, when politicians make grand gestures, such trivialities are beneath their consideration. The statue and its island are budgeted at a billion rupees. Most analysts believe the project will cost much more, and that's without factoring in the realignment of the Sea Link. Since that rejigging is happening only because of the as-yet-unbuilt monument, surely the extra expense ought to be factored into Shivaji island' s cost.
The idea now is to blast a road under Malabar Hill, thus connecting Haji Ali and Chowpatty beach, and then dig a shallow tunnel below the sea bed, across the bay to Nariman Point. I'm willing to wager a substantial amount that this will never get off the ground, or, rather, under it. Politicians and billionaires who got drainage repairs halted for slowing their vehicles are hardly going to sit quietly while the rock beneath their feet is dynamited.
My guess is the artificial island will also be abandoned, once serious discussions about its viability begin.