Mumbai-based architect to present a Coastal Road fact-check

Updated: May 23, 2019, 13:19 IST | Dalreen Ramos

Architect and visual artist Robert Stephens will trace the evolution of the project, whose history goes back to the 1870s, at a talk tomorrow

Mumbai-based architect to present a Coastal Road fact-check
Mumbai's Coastal Road by Larsen & Tourbo. Land reclamation work is visible off the Nepean Sea Road (bottom left). Pic/Robert Stephens

The 149-km-long Mumbai coast has been at the centre of a heated debate - forcing political parties, fisherfolk, environmentalists and activists into a perennial face-off with regards to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) Rs 12,000 crore Mumbai Coastal Road project (MCRP).

It has also given birth to social media movements like the 'Save Our Coast Mumbai', an Instagram account documenting the ongoing land reclamation, which has also set up a petition with over 60,000 signatories marked to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis for responsible development. But owing to the way information spreads on social media, a lot of facts could be placed in the wrong context and manipulated as well. This is what led city-based architect and visual artist Robert Stephens to conceptualise a talk, to be delivered tomorrow at the ARTISANS' Art Gallery at Kala Ghoda, which will trace the evolution of the coastal road.

Development plans by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, sanctioned on February 7, 1967. Pic/University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Centre
Development plans by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, sanctioned on February 7, 1967. Pic/University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Centre

Speaking to mid-day, Stephens says, "In the last six months, I have seen a lot of incorrect information being circulated on Whatsapp and on the Internet with regards to the MCRP. One person said that the plan originated in the 1970s, while it goes back to the 1870s. Then it was also said that Hafeez Contractor had proposed the plan, which is not correct either. Of course, none of this was malicious. But since this bothered me, my wife suggested that I try and fix it. Hence, I decided on this talk."

The two-hour event titled 'Bombay Oblique' is essentially an archival exploration. It features material that Stephen gathered in the last four years from libraries across three continents, including images from the family of Wilbur Smith (an American transportation planner whose proposal for the West Island Freeway in 1963 forms the backbone of the MCRP plan), as well as aerial photographs of the present-day plan under-construction. Smith's drawings from the US Library will also be presented at the session.

Robert Stephens. Pic/Tina Nandi
Robert Stephens. Pic/Tina Nandi

The fact that the idea of a coastal road stems from a proposal by Bombay's first municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford in the 1870s is as interesting as its back-story.

"He was a member of the Byculla Club and wanted it to be relocated to a posh locality. Crawford proposed digging of a tunnel through Malabar Hill and reclamation of the Western foreshore. He called it a bold and costly project. At least he was honest," Stephens says of the self-serving scheme. He further said the talk would only present facts. "I think my personal opinion on how the scheme has evolved is not important. What is important, are the facts, as recorded by those who imagined/designed the various iterations. The facts consistently show that the scheme for a road along Mumbai's coast has been proposed with the explicit written purpose of benefiting a select few. The various schemes [from 1870s till 1962] were never intended to benefit all the city residents," he said, adding, "History that challenges current narratives is never popular or easily accessible. Perhaps that will explain the absence of historical references in the ongoing discussion."

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