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Mumbai's eastern shorefront: Mangrove's last sigh?
The Bombay Port Trust Road may soon be the fastest route out of the city. But can Mumbai preserve part of its vital natural landscape as it speeds forward?
Returning by road from the hill station Mahabaleshwar to Bombay earlier this year, we took the sharp left turn at the Chembur roundabout and caught the Bombay Port Trust Road.
An hour later my Facebook status read, "best value for money, 30 bucks to take the deserted Port Trust Road and leave a teeming, tired more traveled road for a while as you drive back into this doomed city."
We even got to see salt pans along the way.
History lingers, but not for long
With proposals afoot to build a freeway along this eastern seafront, the road will not be deserted for long.
While the 21st century makes its chaotic march into this city, history will be erased and forgotten; important histories that once made Bombay the urbs prima in India.
The road that carried Bombay's trade to and from ships in port, extends from Ballard Pier in the Fort to Chembur along the Port Trust Railway, which was opened in 1915. Along the railway line, grain and fuel depots were built, feeding the containers at the Bombay Port.
All this is now redundant, as the main port has been shifted to Nhava island.
On a hot October afternoon, I turned off Reay Road bridge and down Messent Road to catch the Port Trust Road.
Bittu Ahmadullah, an avid amateur city historian recalls a time in the 1950s when young rebels would use the road at night as a dragstrip.
While I snapped photographs, a whistle blew and an old engine trundled along weary lines. An anachronism, it disappeared between construction barricades pulling no wagons, an exercise of no consequence on a trip whose days were numbered.
Today, the road is rarely used.
There are salt pans, defunct railway lines with disused wagons, cavernous warehouses and broad roads. Sewri Fort draws a crowd armed with binoculars for a few months a year. This is when migratory flamingoes fly to the sea and turn the mud flats along the shore a swath of pink.
Freeway to developmental disaster?
With the relentless upward spiral of Bombay's skyline, infrastructure is too often regarded as an afterthought, not forward planning.
Having exhausted the western half of the city, developers have shifted their eyes eastwards to the Port Trust lands that make up a third of the land in the city. So far it is undeveloped, as it lies under naval and port trust jurisdiction.
Strategically, its importance to the city is as a connection to the mainland across the harbor and to the proposed new airport; as a north-south freeway. Sensitive development could yet preserve some of the open spaces this bit of Bombay is still blessed with.
The Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) has done admirable work in documenting the structures and the land and its current usage. After the city's loss of public space and housing in the mill lands case, the UDRI's efforts to engage citizens early on in the debate concerning the development of these lands is commendable.
After all, this land contains three times the area of what the mill lands were. It could be of some hope to this gasping city if used well for the majority and not just a minority of citizens.
I have always found the views of the harbor off the eastern shorefront breathtaking. This is what the early travelers to Bombay arrived to see, navigating through islands in a naturally deep harbor, a mangrove-lined shore and the hills of the mainland beyond.
The pictures capture what remains of the road, before what may be just another elevated expressway through concrete towers in a city being pillaged beyond redemption.
But this is an opinion I hope to be proven wrong about. I'd love nothing more than to see Mumbai show the way in sensitive redevelopment, to show how new can be as good as old, preserving a vital history while bringing in new vitality.
Or will it be the mangrove's last sigh?