Mumbai’s landsharks show their teeth

Instead of attending to the deteriorating quality of life in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, the authorities are dewy-eyed about the ‘third city’

The Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (photo: MMRDA)
The Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (photo: MMRDA)
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Vidyadhar Date

The history of transport projects in Maharashtra is a checkered one. Renaming the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL) as ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee Sewri-Nhava Sheva Atal Setu’ at the inauguration earlier this month by PM Modi does little to change that. Is the longest sea bridge in India God’s gift to commuters? Or is it merely another example of opportunism disguised as development?

The idea of a cross-harbour bridge dates back to 1972, when the first government proposal to connect Colaba and Uran was shot down by naval and port authorities. In 1981, a committee spearheaded by J.R.D. Tata mooted the Sewri-Nhava Sheva link, approved by the PMO in 1984. In 2004, the project started taking shape.

With an estimated 350 families migrating to the city every day, the plan was to extend city limits beyond Navi Mumbai towards Raigad district, and provide a self-contained ecosystem with schools, colleges, hospitals, offices, industries, parks, shops and theatres.

The current government, however, junked that holistic plan and executed the sea bridge with a view to the boost the real estate market. Built at an estimated cost of Rs 17,840 crore, ecstatic developers are already crowing over the “explosive growth” that will be fuelled by increased connectivity between Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.

Autorickshaws, handcarts, buses and other modes of public transport are banned on the Atal Setu. Following the inauguration, many of the well-heeled, including Kirit Somaiya of the BJP, went for joyrides on the bridge
Atal Setu opening
Ujwal Uke, a former managing director of MSRTC, recalls how the first vehicles given access to the new Mumbai-Pune expressway in 2002 were ordinary state transport buses

Property values will go through the roof as demand for commercial and residential spaces spikes, with the affluent angling for luxury homes close to business hubs. The emergent ‘third city’ is, by all indications, driven by the vested interests of a nexus whose greed is not satisfied by wholesale landgrabs that have already pushed out the poor.

Autorickshaws, handcarts, buses and other modes of public transport are banned on the Atal Setu. Following the inauguration, many of the well-heeled, including Kirit Somaiya of the BJP, went for joyrides on the bridge, stopping to take selfies and reels for Instagram, taking U-turns, blocking emergency lanes and flouting every traffic rule.

On day two, there were 55,367 joyriders on the bridge, as per an MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) spokesperson. This despite the one-way toll tax of Rs 250, which should be increased to Rs 500, says Sudhir Badami, a civil engineer and a member of the toll tax committee.

Dr P.S. Pasricha, a former director general of police and a traffic expert, points out that the real problem is when commuters get off the bridge. Time saved will be time wasted negotiating increased traffic snarls in the island city. Ujwal Uke, a former managing director of MSRTC (Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation), recalls how the first vehicles given access to the new Mumbai-Pune expressway in 2002 were ordinary state transport buses. We certainly have come a long way.


The 500-km Samruddhi Mahamarg between Nagpur and Shirdi, inaugurated by PM Modi in December 2022, is also only for private vehicles. Marred by design flaws, it is now notorious as a death trap, encouraging manic speeding as it does. The first accident on Samruddhi, named after Bal Thackeray, occurred barely 10 days after the bridge had opened.

Meanwhile, the Pune Metro has already become a laughing stock with rakes running empty, and the two new Metro lines in Mumbai’s western suburbs have so few takers that ridership figures are routinely suppressed. Will the Atal Setu really ‘complement existing vital infrastructures’ like the under-used Metro?

Instead of attending to the deteriorating quality of life in the existing twin cities of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, the authorities are dewy-eyed about the ‘third city’ to be serviced by the Atal Setu. Mumbaikars choke on the cement and concrete-dust that passes for air. The most conspicuous vehicles are no longer the yellow Lamborghinis but the monstrous concrete-mixers blocking footpaths in front of construction sites, causing traffic jams, making heavy weather of daily commutes.

Yet, the authorities live in denial. This was evident during two presentations made in Mumbai recently, one by municipal commissioner I.S. Chahal, and the other by MMRDA commissioner Sanjay Mukherjee. Mukherjee spoke at an event held in a newly built government building in Prabhadevi, which has flouted civic norms by not building the mandatory car park, resulting in clots of illegal parking on the road.

Mumbai has always been hostage to big builders, but never before has their grip been so vice-like. It is no coincidence that Mangal Prabhat Lodha, one of the biggest property developers in the country, is also the guardian minister of the suburban district of Mumbai and a former president of the Mumbai unit of the BJP.

Take the prime land of Dharavi. All kinds of concessions are being given to the Adani Group for its redevelopment. To make the project financially viable, several acres of railway land as well as Mahim’s Nature Park have been sought and apparently made available. At the heart of Dharavi beats an economic pulse that defies conventional wisdom, says Mahesh Zagade, a public-spirited retired IAS officer.

Unlike systems skewed in favour of the privileged elite, Dharavi’s economy is a testament to the power of the masses. The entrepreneurial spirit thrives here, with small-scale enterprises disproving the prevailing notion that growth is the exclusive domain of the industrialist-capitalist complex. The government has no qualms in dismantling Dharavi’s economy and handing the land over to the rich.

Also up for grabs are the big Dalit colonies including Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar, and the large open spaces of the BDD chawls in the heart of Mumbai. The MMRDA is promoting these projects in addition to the atrociously planned Metro railway project, incurring huge debts with serious consequences for the state’s economy.


Mumbai’s current urban crisis is vividly captured in two books, both in Hindi. Concrete Ke Jungle Mein Gum Hotey Shahar (cities being engulfed by concrete jungles) is by Jitendra Bhatia, an IIT chemical engineer and prominent Hindi writer, while Shahar Jo Kho Gaya (city that is lost) is by poet and critic Vijay Kumar.

Bhatia looks at several cities including Mumbai, where he lived for many years. He recalls K.A. Abbas’ seminal 1963 film Shahar aur Sapna (the city and the dream), the story of a couple’s search for a home in the city of dreams (soon to turn nightmarish). Bhatia also recalls a play depicting Mumbai’s housing crisis performed by IIT students in the 1970s, based on a short story by Krishen Chander.

Ironically, the establishment is now picking up this pro-poor imagery for its own purposes. The MMRDA commissioner in his recent presentation invoked Sahir Ludhianvi’s song ‘Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi...’ while clinically outlining how the poor would make way for ‘development’.

The rich seams of Vijay Kumar’s lost city include Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay, the communist communes of Khetwadi, as well as the world of Marathi literature and theatre. How impoverished today’s Mumbai appears in contrast! How relevant the words from the song from CID (1956) sung by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt: ‘Ae dil, hai mushkil, jeena yahan/ Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan (oh my heart, how difficult it is to live here/ stay away, stay safe, this is Bombay darling)...’

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