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the indigenous coastal communities of mumbai in lurch

Author_Amit Devale.
August 23, 2020

People settled on coasts to take advantage of the amenities the oceans offer; food supply, source of transport, defensible positions and so on. Most of the vital civilizations we have studied, and are known to have survived long, began at the banks of the river. It offered an abundance of water and other natural resources making coastal regions the most habitable regions in history.

A bird eye view of Mumbai city
Photo by Darshak Pandya from Pexels

Coastal regions of Mumbai

Coastal regions are primarily defined as regions or parts of land adjoining the coastline. On average, a distance of about 60 km from the shoreline to the terrestrial side is considered under the coastal belt. In the earlier times, a shoreline was generally accompanied by an abundance of thick vegetation all along. Today, it hardly exists. A city like Mumbai which has long shoreline once use to have dense Mangroves which worked as a buffer during heavy rains. Presently, it is slowly vanishing.

Most of the coastal cities currently are experiencing these consequences. A general demographic study says that almost 60% of our population is accommodated in these coastal regions. Approximately 150 million of the world’s population stay on land that is likely to go below the high-tide line by 2050.

Considering the monsoon flooding every year and its magnitude, it might not even be as late as 2050, it can be earlier as well, which is quite a massive threat to not only the coastal regions but the entire country.

Coastal cities always have been one of the best places to live. They are well connected to the other parts of the mainland, and on account of their location, obviously become prime destinations and wants. More people have been shifting to these locations to have a better life.

More infrastructure is being planned to cater to more people and thus the load on these cities is increasing day by day. It generally happens that we saturate a city beyond its carrying capacity and when the city retaliates, it does a good amount of loss; to life as well as property

The threat to indigenous communities

The coastal region being of prime real estate value, on account of its obvious accords, is looked upon by many riches in the country. The Kolis and other such indigenous communities are thus under a threat from these land snatching elements and are losing their existence in all terms from the map of the country.

This is not a loss just to the community, but to the entire society that we belong to. A lot of domestic help comes from such communities. Many of the informal jobs, that are not documented and covered for by the government, are also mainly looked after and directly run by the people from these communities. Eliminating them is like slow poisoning the entire society, and eventually its death.

Photo by Darshak Pandya from Pexels
Mumbai Fishing Community

Kolis, Bhils, Gonds, Agris, etc are amongst the various indigenous communities found in the coastal regions of the country. Kolis are into fishing, the Agris take care of salt from the saltpans and distribute it further to the city, the Gonds community are moreover involved in agriculture, and the Bhils work in animal husbandry, poultry, and labour.

All of these communities have given a character to their respective cities, that would have been out of imagination without their existence and contribution. Architecture, food, clothing, traditions and culture, festivals, etc. everything is a credit on them. Imagine a society without all of these and you will realize how important a role these indigenous communities play in our life.

Many amongst these communities are in danger of extinction, due to various reasons. Being a part of cities, these communities have changed their lifestyles, adopted themselves more to a city life, and trying to cope up with the present surroundings, just to sustain and survive. Cities are in a way dependent on them and vice versa..

Incentives and support from the Government to promote and encourage indigenous communities

The government refuses to even acknowledge these communities, let alone making any provisions for them. Talking about Mumbai and its Metropolitan Region, these indigenous settlements were not even identified, in the Development Planning process. NGOs and other non-profit organizations in Mumbai and around have been working hard to get a special set of DCRs for these settlements, to provide them with better infrastructure, better hygiene, and quality of life, and to encourage their original occupations by some means. It’s a lengthy process, but thankfully has started and taken good shape.

Identifying and accommodating indigenous communities in the mitigation plans

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), had documented in detail in its Existing Land Use of the Development Plan 2034 process, all the contours and low-lying areas in the city and its suburbs. It showed a clear demarcation of areas that are at risk of flooding. Despite having such rich data of the contours and elevations, the MCGM did not act on it or took any precautionary measures while preparing the proposed land use plan.

On the contrary, they planned dense residential neighbourhoods on these parcels of land, thus making the situation worse already. New developments have come up out of nowhere on greenfield sites and the catchment areas, with no connectivity at all, to public transportation, road network, etc. making them an isolated vulnerable island in all terms.

New industrial development on these greenfield sites will only add on to more toxic waste let out without any treatment into the sea, contaminating it furthermore. There have been cases of these regions flooding every monsoon, and at least a floor going below water.

But greed and extremely poor governance have made things worse than before. The government tries to come up with piecemeal solutions that do not even come close to the magnitude of the destruction of the damage. Sadly, the citizens have to bear with this and face such inhuman conditions recurringly.

Coastal regulatory authority to look into dangers and disasters

Mumbai flooded like never before in history, in the cloudburst of 2005 monsoon. Experiencing a rainfall of 944 mm, within 24 hours, there was no way out. It caused approximately 550 crore worth of damage and took more than 1000 lives. The British had designed Mumbai’s stormwater drain for a capacity of 25mm of rainfall. What happened on 26th July 2005 was about 45mm, which was almost double the carrying capacity of the drain at that time. A fact-finding committee was set up headed by Madhavrao Chitale. The committee recommended the provision of three pumping stations across the city as a primary solution to the recurring floods. But it was not until 2011 that the first pumping station was commissioned.

Role of local government in the framing of regulations and building by-laws

The DCRs need to address these issues and reframed to accommodate all of these facts and act on it. The municipal corporation plays a vital role in this game, but is still playing at backfoot. As mentioned earlier, the contour and elevation data needs to be studied more and necessary actions need to be taken to avoid further disasters.

The DCRs propose a blanket Floor Space Index (FSI) across the city, which does not seem suitable or necessary. The vulnerable areas,prone to regular flooding can be decongested and these densities can be transferred on to other areas that have the necessary carrying capacity and less prone to such hazards.

The government can also contribute by shuffling working hours for offices, so the load on public transport reduces at a given time. This will in turn reduce the number of people being vulnerable to these disasters. These norms and regulations or guidelines need to be framed and executed to avoid more loss of life and property. It affects the overall economy as well.

Rapid privatization is death knell

Waterfronts have always been a public realm, and should always be open for public; for their recreation, and the city to have a breathing void. If we privatize these, the regions will lose out on a good deal of public open spaces and it would become difficult and/or impossible to then force bylaws on to the privatized lands.

There is a lot that can be done, using the potential of the sea. And we can have so much better regions along the sea, than what we have today.

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