Elephanta Island gets too much development too fast

Getting power supply could have shaped the island’s future, but now the recent CRZ notification has put its existence at risk

By Gajanan Khergamker
Last Updated: Friday 25 January 2019
Elephanta Island
The approach road of Elephanta Island. Photo: Gajanan Khegamker The approach road of Elephanta Island. Photo: Gajanan Khegamker

Elephanta Island, which is home to centuries-old Elephanta caves, was slowly and gradually moving towards being a pristine rural tourism spot with a dash of cave history peppered with stories of a Portuguese reign. But, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) nipped this future in the bud by including the island in draft Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) map under CRZ II (Urban) opening the area for construction.

The real estate industry with the help of the new CRZ notification threatens the island's ecology and sustainability.  

“This is preposterous,” said Mumbai-based Vanshakti’s project director D Stalin. “We have filed objections to these maps and will not allow construction activities on this island. This is an attempt to bring five-star hotels and seaside resorts to this eco-fragile island,” he added.

Power could have done it

The island, which was called Gharapuri once, got permanent power supply after 70 years of independence, in early 2018. Before this, life on the island used to come to an acute standstill after sunset as most islanders depended on tourism. Around 1,200 people live in the three villages on the island— Rajbunder, Shetbunder and Morabunder.

No potable water and a dearth of medical facilities had most of the new generation islanders moving out for livelihood. Also, the four monsoon months brought tourist influx to a naught as ferries and boats stopped plying owing to weather concerns. This made locals overcharge tourists during the remaining eight months of business to cover the four months of penury.

With electricity came some hope of a new chapter in Elephanta’s progress, but CRZ II (Urban) notification by the MCZMA stomped all over it.

And matters got worse with the most recent CRZ notification, which says on CRZ-II notified islands, construction of buildings for residential purpose will be done “only on the landward side of the existing road”.

But all constructions usually take place on the landward side of existing roads on islands or zones with coastal roads. This is because, by definition, constructions are now permitted on the entire island as they fall on the landward side of the existing ‘coastal’ road encircling the entire island.

All rise in support

Lawyer Godfrey Pimenta, on behalf of Watchdog Foundation, wrote to the Raigad Collector and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board saying, “By marking the said island as CRZ-II (Urban), you will be opening them for development and turn them into a concrete jungle. The environmental destruction has to be stopped or it will ruin the history of this great island.”

Environmentalists too were unanimous in their suggestions that Gharapuri Island, renowned for its centuries-old Elephanta caves, needs to be preserved as an open space and kept away from any development. The contention is that the islands be marked as CRZ-III (Open Space Area/Rural).

Bringing tourists or destruction

The Centre sanctioned a project to construct an eight-km-long ropeway over the Arabian Sea connecting Mumbai and Elephanta Caves to reduce the hour-long ferry journey to a mere 15 minutes.

It is expected to be done sometime in 2022, around the same time the Mumbai Metro will be complete.

Blinded by prospects of burgeoning tourism on the island, almost every home that lies at stone’s throw away from the sea and on the high tide line has begun constructing vertical extensions to their homes to double up as lodges for tourists.“In the monsoons, the waves hit the walls of our homes and sometimes even enter our places,” says Shetbunder resident Someshwar Bhoir. The USP of Bhoir’s home—its proximity to the sea—happens to be the very bane of their new-found trade.

Peppered with CRZ violations across the island, the three villages have initiated a slew of constructions in and around the coastal zone with scant regard for the fragility of the island.

The footfall on the island, with touristy entities like hotels and beach resorts set to mushroom all along the coastline, will corrode the very existence of the island that’s developing too fast.

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