Bombay High Court suggests both GoI & Maharashtra indulged in mere tokenism while clearing coastal road
The first major reclamation of land in Mumbai, the Bombay High Court judgment on the coastal road project does well to note, took place in 1708, to construct the causeway between Mahim and Sion. The second major reclamation took place in 1772, and connected Mahalaxmi and Worli; in more recent times, in the 1960s, the first Backbay Reclamation Company was formed to reclaim the whole of Backbay … So it has to be a diehard environmentalist who will argue that no development activity—like the coastal road—should be allowed if there is even a little damage to the environment. There is always a tradeoff between the benefits of development and the losses to the environment; and the job of the environmental appraisal is to examine the cost-benefit after ensuring as many remedial measures as possible are taken to mitigate the damage.
What is worrying, going by the court judgment that struck down the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) clearances given by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA), the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the MoEF itself to the coastal road project, is that the procedure used seemed quite cavalier; since the goal appeared to be to clear the project, even basic precautions were given the go by. Since the CRZ didn’t allow the construction of a coastal road, in June 2013, the MCZMA asked MoEF to change the rules to allow this. The MoEF did this in June 2015, but while doing so said the proposed construction mustn’t affect the ‘tidal flow’ in the area; when the Maharashtra government objected to this since the ‘tidal flow’ would clearly be affected, the MoEF dropped this clause as well. While this does seem like the MoEF bending over backwards, interestingly, the court found no fault with this as, it said, the public interest—reducing congestion in Mumbai by building a coastal road—had to be kept in mind.
What the court objected to, and rightly so, was that even a basic environmental impact assessment (EIA) was not done. Indeed, when the MoEF, in July 2016, pointed to certain problems with the proposal, Mumbai’s municipal corporation submitted a fresh application to MCZMA, this time by breaking up the project into two; even though the project would only be complete after both parts were complete, the clearance was sought for the first part so as to ensure the evaluation done was only partial. In January 2017, the MCZMA recommended the truncated project be cleared, the EAC concurred in March and, in May, the MoEF cleared the project. But, as the high court points out, even various consultants to the project said that a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) had not been done; a peer review by Frischmann Prabhu of the EIA said this “does not include an environmental and social data sheet or screening checklist”. Hardly surprising that the court was constrained to say this was “lip service to the requirement of the law”. Indeed, while the CRZ allowed a coastal road but said it was to be built only when there was a desperate need for it, the court said the authorities who argued Mumbai’s impossible congestion needed a coastal-road solution didn’t even consider whether the metro being constructed in the city would take care of the problem. It is possible the Supreme Court will overturn the high court verdict, but it is difficult to understand how even basic procedures such as a detailed EIA were given the go by.