This piece first appeared on Catch News on 23 December 2016.
After renaming Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), the Maharashtra state government has moved on to another burning issue.
On Saturday, 24 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the much-delayed memorial of the Maratha king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.
The 192-metre statue, roughly 1.5 kilometres from the Raj Bhavan and 3.5 kilometres into the sea, is supposed to be the tallest in the world. However, apart from spending more than Rs 3,500 crore of the taxpayers’ money, it is likely to result in a lot of trouble for the city of Mumbai.
Destroying marine habitat
Environmentalists say it will severely affect the 110-km coastal area, along with rupturing the marine life and consequently destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.
Stalin Dayanand of the NGO Vanashakti said the pollution control board needs to monitor the soil used for the construction of the project. “If you are going to reclaim land, you have to use marine soil by law,” he said, adding if the authorities indeed use marine soil, the project would never be concluded because the cost would be drastically multiplied.
“The metro project is going to generate 5.4 million tons of mud, and there is no disposal plan for it. It will be used for the Shivaji memorial, making the sea turbid with foreign particles. Marine life will be ruptured and fishermen will be the hardest hit.”
Around 80,000 fishermen’s livelihoods depend on it, and they do not have an alternate source of income, said Damodar Tandel of the Akhil Maharashtra Machimar Kriti Samiti (AMMKS).
“The 42-acre bed planned in the sea is a prime fishing spot for us,” he said. “It is also a breeding spot for big fish. Prawns, lobsters and 40 types of crabs are found there. Out of the Rs 2,000 crore worth of fish Maharashtra exports per year, half comes from the two docks in South Mumbai. We are not opposed to the memorial, but we are terrified by its location.”
About 450 small boats and 1,500 large ones, which do daily business in the sea, will mount black flags when Modi arrives to lay the foundation stone, said Tandel.
“Three main wholesale fish markets – Sassoon dock, Bhaucha Dhakka, and Crawford will be shut,” he said.
“Fishermen across Maharashtra are supporting us. The 100-odd retail markets will also be on strike, and fisherwomen will form a human chain at Marine Drive and show black flags to Modi.”
Tandel claimed the police were threatening his workers with legal action, but the fishermen’s community is in no mood to capitulate. “We are exercising our constitutional right,” he said.
Did environment bodies aid statue?
Last month, Vinayak Mete, head of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, the group appointed by the state to implement the project, termed the allegations by fishermen ‘baseless’, and cited clearances by the Environment Ministry, along with favourable reports by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).
However, there is a case pending in the National Green Tribunal where lawyer Asim Sarode, who is representing the petitioners, has pointed out flaws in the state’s defence.
“The NIO suggested mitigation measures while saying there is no harm to the environment. Is it not contradictory?” he asked. “The organisation is losing credibility because it is using its knowledge for the purposes of government.”
In February 2015, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was prepared for the state’s public works department by the NIO and NEERI. The year-long study noted that the project would increase congestion on roads, air pollution and solid waste generation.
Sarode further challenged the process through which the government got exemption from conducting a public hearing. “The project did not involve rehabilitation and resettlement of the public, and since it was located away from human habitation, the public hearing was dispensed,” reads the affidavit of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Further, environment clearances say there should be no dredging at all. “But the government will require water for construction, as salt water cannot be used,” said Sarode. “The government contacted the maritime board, which said a tunnel duck is required inside the water. But any kind of tunnel cannot transpire without dredging.”
On 22 December, the government asked for more time to submit its reply to the NGT. The next date of hearing is 31 January.
Apart from environmental hazards, the memorial is likely to intensify problems like the already congested traffic situation in South Mumbai.
“If you are creating a tourist destination with access from Marine Drive, you will have to create parking spaces,” said Stalin. “The entire Colaba and Marine Drive area would be choked. To conquer that, problem, I fear they will again reclaim the sea along Marine Drive to create parking spaces. They are out to ruin the marine environment.”
Simple matter of politics
Commentators believe that by holding the foundation stone ceremony right now, the BJP government is laying the foundation for the upcoming Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai polls.
Stalin said the Shivaji Memorial is a “meaningless expenditure to indulge in cheap vote bank politics”. “If you want to seriously pay respect to the great warrior, spend one-tenth of the amount and maintain the Raigad fort,” he said.
An online petition at change.orgwith close to 15,000 supporters says the money could be spent on “something better – education, infrastructure, food”, especially when the state is reeling from starvation deaths and an agrarian crisis, among other problems.
But speaking in the legislative Assembly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “Since we do not ask our father how much money he spends on food, how can we think about the cost when it comes to building a memorial for Shivaji Maharaj? He is our pride and it would only be right to build a grand memorial in his name.”
The CM has not relented. And since the PM has obliged to lay the foundation stone, he too seems to be okay with the quagmire fishermen find themselves in, as well as the environmental perils pointed out by experts.
However, it leaves Tandel with a poignant question. “Our PM keeps visiting developed countries. Does he not see how they invest in protecting their environment?”