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Black mark on the seafront

Storage of coal in the open on land belonging to the Mumbai Port Trust invites criticism on grounds of civic aesthetics and public health

Ranjita Ganesan 

Amid a mix of commercial structures, residential buildings and tenements near Avenue Road in Haji Bundar, fenced off by blue and white tin sheets lies an expanse that Mumbai locals reckon is responsible for making doctors in the area richer every day. Stored there in undulating heaps are large quantities of high-quality imported coal. Every year roughly 1.8 million tonnes are brought there. A number of trucks are parked around haphazardly, while others drive in and out, delivering or taking away loads of the black fuel to destinations including a power plant in Bhusaval. This movement unfolds a short distance from where advertising professional Hemlata Kharvi lives in Makani Chambers, which is among the buildings built on plots leased by the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT). As activity increased during the last five years, residents say health troubles in the neighbourhood have also multiplied.

In a seething letter to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) in January, Kharvi wrote, "The coal powder is now a part of our life as it is now inside our building, our compound, our houses and even our bodies." Every so often, the heaps spontaneously combust and emit smoke. The MbPT owns a roughly 1,800-acre plot of land along the eastern waterfront, much of which lies adjacent to tony parts of the city. Visible from Kharvi's home are soaring luxurious towers that cost several crores of rupees. Located beyond the walls of the port-owned land, they overlook the filth but are seemingly untouched by it. "Because vast areas in the portlands are unused, lessees whose lease deeds have long expired are using the empty plots to dump coal," says Meera Sanyal in an e-mail. The banker, who was the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from South Mumbai in the Lok Sabha elections, chanced upon the coal dump while investigating levels of lung disease in the city. Her examination of activities on MbPT's land gathered momentum in the run-up to the elections, presumably because her opponent was Milind Deora, then the minister of state for shipping.

Mumbai Docklands Regeneration Forum (MDRF), a citizen's group of which Sanyal is a member, filed a public-interest petition in early September seeking a halt to the coal handling. In its first hearing of the case, the Bombay High Court told the state pollution control board to consider the complaint against MbPT before taking any decision on the renewal or extension of consent to operate. Ravi Parmar, who took over as chairman of the port trust in May, agrees that the practice is problematic but also points out that this load forms less than 10 per cent of the total cargo handled by the port. "In the long run, we plan to bring it down further," he says. For now, the port's response has been to sprinkle water on the mounds to settle the dust. It also occasionally makes workers clean up the black film on the surrounding streets. But open bucket excavators that befoul the air are used instead of the unloaders and stacker reclaimers that are typically prescribed for large-scale coal handling.

For several years, environment groups and MDRF have been protesting against the misuse of such plots and demanding that they be freed up as open, accessible spaces. They were, however, not the first people to hold this view. In 1980, when Indira Gandhi sanctioned the construction of container port by Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), it was on the condition that the land owned by Mumbai Port Trust would be turned into recreational spaces. That condition was never fulfilled.

However, the dissenting voices forced the union shipping ministry to set up the Rani Jadhav Committee in July, headed by the former chairman of the port trust. It has invited suggestions from the public for the rejuvenation of the portlands, although any report is yet to be released.

Retired Vice-admiral Indrashil C Rao, an active member of MDRF, has been voicing opposition to MbPT's plan for an offshore container terminal (OCT). The ambitious project was launched in 2007, purportedly to take some pressure off JNPT. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh and Deora had expressed doubts over the terminal, but GK Vasan, who headed the shipping ministry then, supported it. When the 1.2 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) terminal is completed, thousands of containers will arrive in the city for onward despatch by rail, pipeline and road, says Rao. The potential congestion was among the reasons cited in MDRF's PIL requesting the project be shut down. Navroz Mody, a member of Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), agrees. "Where is the necessity for it when JNPT is expanding?" Vasan's justification had been that much of the container movement by road - 14 per cent of the total cargo - would be for use within Mumbai. "What about the pollution caused by hundreds of diesel trucks moving in the city?" counters Mody. Still, the project received the go-ahead last year.

The plan to increase port activity is a way for the port trust to stay alive, claims Rao. "But you cannot just impose a container terminal on the city to protect the interests of one group," he adds. According to Sanyal, the project is technically and commercially unviable. Mumbai has a draught of five metres against the draught of 17-20 metres required to bring in large container ships today. This would require continuous dredging or deepening of channels, which will increase expenses. Nonetheless, construction began on the terminal. Costs have climbed from the initial Rs 1,200 crore to Rs 1,900 crore because of capacity augmentation, according to Subhrarabinda Birabar, head of port sector at Gammon Infrastructure.

Gammon is partnering with Dragados of Spain to construct the terminal. A jetty has been built and the Prince's and Victoria docks, historic sites that were constructed around 1885, are being filled to create a wharf. Work has been stuck after Jaisu Shipping, the original dredging contractor, claimed bankruptcy last year (not before it had discovered bullets, gold and a live bomb belonging to SS Fort Stikine, which sank in 1944). Gammon has found a new contractor in Dutch firm International Seaport Dredging, which is awaiting approval from a cabinet committee. If it fails to resume work by October, Sanyal and Rao are hoping to bring the project's feasibility back into discussion.

Internationally, docklands in developed cities like Brooklyn and Melbourne have been renewed into planned neighbourhoods and centres of tourism. A PortLands Initiative (APLI), a set of suggestions by MDRF to the Rani Jadhav Committee, includes ideas for a passenger ferry terminal, marina, water sports facility and performing arts facility. The battleship INS Vikrant, whose new owner, IB Commercial, is awaiting permissions to scrap it, can also be retained as a museum here. Mody feels that a body should be constituted of people capable of designing and running open facilities for the public. His group, which has been campaigning since the 1980s for the preservation of green belts, also questions the presence of a shipbreaking yard within the city.

Seemingly aware of growing discontent with MbPT, Parmar is stepping up efforts to make the trust more relevant to people. Like its office building, a heritage building that is being refurbished, he wants an image overhaul for the trust. "We want to go from being seen merely as cargo handlers to looking at Mumbai's needs like transport and leisure." Accordingly, MbPT has invited interest for somewhat extravagant plans for its waterfront such as four floating restaurants and two floating hotels.

An urgent examination of activities on the portlands is much needed, observes Rao. "People are not always aware because some of these areas are not accessible to the public," says the retired naval officer. "The port may have been instrumental in building the city, but the reality is that over the years the city's needs have become more important."

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First Published: Sat, September 27 2014. 20:38 IST