Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bombay: urban planning basket case

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.


Unknown said...

I feel that very soon, Religion/Culture hum sabko le doobega...!! Not because I am an atheist!! But for the fact that people only believe culture means going to a temple and folding hands.. And if that's Indian culture, I better wash my hands off it.. Till, when we will stay a slave of religion??? Till when we will compromise development and modernism on the pretext of culture?? I guess until we are destroyed...!!

Anonymous said...

Being a tad unfair to the Peddar Road People. Presumably you didnt read what the BMC said after the fiasco.

a. They need only 300 Metres for digging up but the traffic cops closed the whole road without reason !

b. IMO, with exams at Activity High School underway ( and that is the point where the repair work will happen), it is daft to start drilling work
at exam time. They could well have started the job last Dec or waited till April 3rd week when the schools close.

c. It is not the PRP but the politicians who asked that the work be stopped as it was hampering campaigining. The last thing they wanted was scores of annoyed residents just when they were on a vote asking spree.
It wouldnt be amiss to ask sources in the Deora-Ravle campaign offices on this !


Girish Shahane said...

I have no doubts whatsoever about the incompetence of the BMC; that's what the post is mainly about. But it is a fact that the rich guys in and around Peddar Road can get civic works stopped quickfast, unlike residents in poorer localities. A great case in point is the J J Flyover, which was built despite protests of those living in and around Mohammad Ali Road. The Peddar Road flyover, proposed at the same time, was scrapped once Lata Mangeshkar and her neighbours objected to it. As a result, there is now no practical place for traffic to go once it reaches the end of the Worli - Haji Ali Sea Link. Planners have been forced to consider absurd routes like directing vehicles east over the Race Course rather than due south. It's another matter that the Sea Link itself has progressed at a snail's pace.
As far as school exams go, they start in February and go on till April, and there are schools everywhere, so maybe we should have no roadworks for all those months. After this, there's a one-month window before the monsoon arrives and shuts construction down. Once the monsoon is done, the festive season is upon us. We certainly can't have large scale construction interrupting Ganapati and Diwali celebrations. I suppose we could squeeze in another two months of work between December and February before the cycle of examinations starts again. And we should make sure that no project is going to take up more than two or three months in a row, because that would mean intruding into one or more of Bombay's sacrosanct time zones :)

Anonymous said...

This is a city where exams are delayed to allow namaaz to take place - i know. i sat for my ty finals at a centre in central bombay and the afternoon papers were pushed back 30 mins so that the prayers on the road Outside could be completed. Since students generally are the worst to suffer, making an exception for them the one time when its important shouldnt make a difference. And i hope you know exactly why the bmc chose this very period to start the work. once the contracts are doled out, they get their "fees" which will come in mighty handY since elections are round the corner. As for the MA road flyover, there were many delays to accomodate all the wishes of the residents.This is not to say they didnt face a tough time but lets not always equate "rich" with powerful.
Having said that, i really wish we would go the HKG way. They're heritage proud and manage to keep their it intact while making sure their very densely populated city works smoothly. SA

Girish Shahane said...

The Mohammad Ali road flyover may have faced a few delays (minor ones, it was built in very good time), but the Peddar Road flyover is not being built at all. Surely there's a difference.
As far as kowtowing to religious belief goes, I agree, we are experts at it. The Lalbaug flyover is being demolished so that bigger Ganapatis can make their way directly to the immersion point!

Anonymous said...

Really ? bigger ganpatis ? surely you are kidding. but then i guess not.
i have always wondered why all the money they collect as daan isnt given to saifee hospital each year which can make a spl ward "lalbagcha raja-cha and treat for free the indigent who get admitted there. JJ might be closer but the message the grant to saifee would send would be priceless.
Sorry to have gone off on a tangent but i was all muddled up reading about exalted company bobilli will henceforth be in thanks to you !


Girish Shahane said...

I kid you not, SA. Ganapati idols over twelve feet high placed on trucks can't go under the current flyover and have to take a diversion. The sole reason for demolishing the flyover is to allow these and bigger Ganapti idols a direct route to the sea.
It is bizarre, but no more bizarre than changing the route of the Sea Link to an impossible one in order not to obscure the view of a statue that is never going to be erected.