Haphazard land reclamation fuelled Mumbai's maximum dreams

It also damaged Mumbai's ecology and made flooding a regular feature, says a yet-to-be-released study                                                        

By Akshay Deshmane
Published: Monday 01 April 2013

imageLarge parts of Mumbai is built on reclaimed land, and the highest number of land reclamations took place in the past forty years in the city's more than 300 year history of reclamations. Unscientific and haphazard measures adopted for reclaiming land and the changing nature of land because of increase in built-up area have adversely impacted the city’s ecology, particularly its coastline; it caused perennial flooding and devoured creeks which acted as natural drainage systems.

This has been revealed in part one of an ambitious four part study—Land Reclamation in Mumbai. The study is an ongoing one and is being conducted by the state government-run think tank, Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU). The report admits that reclamations have invited popular criticism and controversies over the years, as the mega-metropolis continued to develop in an unplanned and unrestrained manner. Crucially, it has also highlighted the serious threats posed to ecology by some of the state government’s prestigious projects and policy decisions such as special economic zones, Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and sea links (see 'Adverse impacts of reclamation...')

Peek at history
Detailing the scale, nature and impact of reclamations conducted in the past and present, the report of the first and only finished phase of the study—History of Reclamation—accessed by Down To Earth (DTE), shows that prior to Independence, approximately 35 sq km of land reclamation was carried out by the colonial administration for linking the erstwhile seven islands of Worli, Parel, Mahim, Mazagaon, Bombay, Little Colaba and Colaba. This was an area approximately equalling the total land area of the seven islands put together.

In independent India, particularly between 1970 and 2012, unusually high amount of land was reclaimed from the sea by legal and illegal means, many a time leading to controversies. With administrators desperate to find space for more and more people and grand projects for the ever-expanding city, more than half of its natural cover has been progressively lost to built-up area.

The study shows that while the total built up area of the city in 1970s was 195.01 sq km, as against the total area of 632.6 sq km, it shot up to 338.38 sq km in the 1990s, and 385.67 sq km in 2011. This has caused an unprecedented loss of natural landscape due to land use change in favour of built up area for urban use, created after eating up more than 50 per cent of Mumbai’s beaches, lakes, vegetated islets, hillocks, inter-tidal zones and mangroves. This has been witnessed most intensively and extensively in the northern and eastern periphery of the city.

“Mumbai’s present configuration as an island city having a contiguous landmass has resulted from several projects of reclamation of the sea and its inlets. It was achieved by razing hills, distortion of surface drainage, filling up of water bodies and marshes, undertaken in various stages of the growth and expansion of the city during both, the colonial as well as post-Independence periods. At times, some of the projects faced heavy criticism due to the associated ecological as well as social cost and were hence abandoned, only to be reactivated later under the pressures of the then prevailing politico-economic forces,” says the report, authored by the faculty members of the department of geography, University of Mumbai  (See table 'Major reclamation and controversies').

Major reclamation and controversies


Outcome/ remarks



To link island and close breach between Mazgaon and Mumbai island

None. On the contrary welcomed

Hornby Vellard/ Worli etc

Cumballa Hill sea wall constructed and settlement of Tardeo, Kamathipura, Byculla extended towards Mahalakshmi

Provided space for migrants to settle. Worli area became available for agriculture

First Back Bay reclamation

 Work remained incomplete due to American Civil War. Helped railways to set up Churchgate station.

Reclamation company went bankrupt


From Sasoon Docks to Sewree reclamation on east facilitated setting up of port and Bori Bunder

None. Provided space for  ports and docks

Second Back Bay

Partial completion. Created Marine Drive

Abandoned due to corruption charges

Third Back Bay

Work stayed by court due to fisher’s protests

 Abandoned due to fishers' protests

With concerns being raised in several quarters about new multi-crore public projects, which involve massive reclamation—the additional Central Business District (CBD) spread over 30 hectares in the South Mumbai region; a tourism destination in the reclaimed Back Bay area located on the southernmost tip of the Colaba island and the so-called world class waterfront promenades; sea links and coastal roads across the western coast of the city, to name a few—insights offered by this official study about the contested history of land reclamations and dangers to ecology assume immense importance.

Particularly so in the light of another startling fact which the study reveals: despite the new multi-crore projects not taking off the drawing board, Mumbai in 2012 was already witnessing extensive reclamations being conducted for conversion of land to urban use. “As much as 54.73 sq km of Mumbai’s land is under process of reclamation as observed in the satellite image of 2012. In the near future, it will be or perhaps by now it has already been, completely reclaimed and converted to built-up area,” the report says. 

These projects have been proposed in the Concept Plan for future development of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) and have become controversial due to their impact on ecology and local residents.
A senior state official closely associated with the MTSU, said, the recommendations of this study will help in planning an integrated coastal development and management policy in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region for the future. “When you understand the nature of the coasts, you have to decide the nature of intervention choices of activities and technologies to overcome natural constraints and benefit from advantages which the coasts provide,” the official informed.

The remaining three phases of this ongoing four phase study will look into the following aspects related to reclamation in Mumbai: a) economic analysis of the land reclaimed b) its social impact and c) a purely techno-scientific study, assessing ecological impacts.

Cases in point: Mumbai sea link, Mithi diversion
Two prominent geologists associated with the study spoke to DTE on the damaging ecological impacts of unscientific land reclamation which was done for two prominent infrastructure projects of Mumbai. Former professor of geology at the Indian Institute of Technology (Mumbai), V Subramaniam, explained the effects of unscientific reclamation at Mahim Bay for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. “Reclamation is an unnatural process because you are interfering with coastlines delineated by nature. So unless you understand how the nature has programmed its processes and coastal features have developed, reclamation will be difficult,” he said. This has been the case with the construction of the sea link, which led to destruction of the Dadar beach. 

fig12 fig14 fig14
Topographical maps of Mumbai show extent of land reclamation from sea over past four decades (courtesy: MTSU report)

“They did a rush job for the sea link. You cannot do it (reclamation) today and start using the reclaimed area tomorrow. A test site for reclamation should have been taken on a trial basis to see if nature is accepting it. Since this was not done and the north end of Mahim Bay was reclaimed for building the access road of sea link, erosion was diverted to the Dadar beach. Now, beach sands at Dadar have been removed and what was a wide 50 metre-long coastline about 10 years ago has been reduced to two-three metres,” said Subramaniam.

Adverse impacts on Mumbai’s ecology

• Depletion of vegetation, transformation of soil cover to concretised landscape has reduced permeability, increased run-off, which has been one of the primary causes for the flooding in Mumbai during monsoons; creeks are increasingly getting narrower and shallower due to silt and increase in built-up area, causing blockage of the natural drainage systems of the city.

• With the High Tide Line (HTL) shifting to the inter-tidal zone associated with reclamation, mangroves and mudflats are gradually wiped out as is seen in the Lokhandwala environs; the creeks and channels tend to get shallower and narrower, affecting drainage outflow.

• Projects like SEZs, Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and construction of transport links and terminals are likely to pose serious threat to the already fragile littoral zone or shallow water area immediately adjoining the shoreline which supports various life forms and is at the beginning of submarine topography of Greater Mumbai, and thereby keep pace of land reclamation unabated leading to its consequent distortion and degradation.

The former professor of geology explained that it is in the nature of the western coast of India to cause land erosion. So the process of marine erosion which involves erosion of the beaches, transportation of the sediments so released and the eventual deposition of these sediments at specific locations in the sea is always happening on the western coast. However, since this was not thought about and the Mahim Bay filled in a rushed manner, erosion has moved to the Dadar beach.

Rushikesh Samant, head, geology department at St. Xaviers’ College and former member of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA), cited the example of the forcible diversion of the Mithi river channel, presently running below the Mumbai International airport runway. “During the early 1970s, Boeing 747 had entered India and this created a need for extending the second runway of the airport. However, since the Mithi river’s wide channel was flowing there, the authorities reclaimed large parts of the channel and forced it to flow under the runways. They also reduced the width of the channel to 20-30 metre. This ensures that the river floods substantially, as was evident during the massive flood of 26 July, 2005. Doing that to a river is like letting excessive fat enter your veins,” he said.

As the study progresses over the next one year, details about the socio-economic impacts due to this unrestrained practice is likely to throw up more unsavoury facts.


Prominent reclamations

Mahim-Sion Causeway: The first major reclamation took place in 1708 to construct the causeway between Mahim and Sion, providing easy access between the two islands.

Hornby Vellard and other projects:  The second major phase of reclamations started in 1772 for filling in the shallows between the islands of Parel, Worli, Bombay, Mahim and Mazagaon, by building a bund to prevent the ingress of the sea, thus gaining valuable land and stopping flooding of central Mumbai. This also connected Mahalaxmi and Worli in the process. This phase also involved the project of connecting the islands by sealing the Great Breach (Breach Candy) between Dongri, Malabar hill and Worli; initiated in 1784 by William Hornby then governor of Bombay presidency; the project, however, is regarded as the oldest unauthorised construction that took place in Mumbai at a total expenditure Rs 1,00,000.

Kamathipura: At the fortified Dongri hill, an esplanade and parade ground was cleared, from the walls of the Fort to the present day Crawford market and the flat land (from Mahalakshmi to Kamathipura, named after the Kamathi workers from Andhra Pradesh who settled here) was reclaimed only after the completion of construction at Breach Candy by Hornby in 1784.

Mazgaon:The armoury was moved from the Bombay Castle to Mazgaon in 1760 and the docks were completed in 1790. It was in 1793, that William Hornby built Bellasis Road to join Mazgaon with Malabar Hill. This left Mazgaon landlocked; with the reclamation of the docks, mills came up and became the work area for the next 30 years.

Byculla: The fumes from the mills drove people out of Mazgaon and into Byculla. With the closure of the breach, space in Byculla was in great demand. It was designed as an elegant prosperous suburb with grand British bungalows and the homes of the affluent Indians like Parsis with a church that eclipsed St Thomas's Cathedral in the Fort area. The Byculla Railway station was completed in 1857.

Causeways: The major schemes of Hornby’s project gained momentum in 1817, and as early as 1884, the entire sea portions between the islands were reclaimed, connecting five islands. Finally, all the seven southern islands had also been connected to form the Old Bombay or Mumbai with an area of 435 sq km.

Expansion, consolidation and intensification of city building: The first railway line was laid in 1855 from Bori Bunder to Thane. By 1862, the town spread out and the constructions that took place began to give rise to the modern city of Mumbai. This became a regular feature in the succeeding years. The Fort walls were demolished and the tanks right upto Parel were filled. From 1870 to 1970, industrial and commercial development took place at a fast pace, which increased the spate of reclamation that culminated in the infamous Back Bay reclamation.

More reclamations: The opening of the Suez in 1869 made the city prosperous. Migration to the city increased. Additional plans were made to reclaim more land for building roads and wharves. Various railway viaducts and road bridges were built in the 19th century to connect Bombay Island to Sashti, and Sashti to the mainland.




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