It was a trip few Mumbai residents had made before – to a smelly dock on murky waters in the city’s southern tip, to see colourful art installations inspired by the fishing community, the city’s original residents. The Sassoon Dock Art Project, which ran until the end of December, gave many Mumbai residents their first excuse to walk through one of the city’s oldest docks, an area set for a massive overhaul under a plan to redevelop the docklands.
Mumbai’s most valuable piece of land, the docklands sprawl across 752 hectares (1,858 acres), about one eighth of the island city.
They are located along a 14 km (8.7 miles) stretch along the waterfront, dotted with defunct warehouses, jetties and slums.
The proposed redevelopment of the land, owned by the government-run Mumbai Port Trust, is the biggest opening up of land in the city since the redevelopment of about 600 acres of textile-mill land in the heart of Mumbai in the 1990s.
That redevelopment was meant to create equal quantities of open spaces, public housing and commercial real estate.
Instead, it drove tens of thousands of mill workers from their homes, as planners prioritised offices, bars, malls and multi-storeyed parking, according to campaigners who fought for their rehabilitation.
Two decades on, the docklands redevelopment offers perhaps the last chance for a more sustainable and inclusive future for residents in the space-starved city, home to some of the priciest real estate in the world, experts say.
“It is absolutely essential that we get it right this time – this is the last big chance to seriously tackle the challenges that Mumbai faces,” said Bimal Patel, urban planner and president of CEPT University in Ahmedabad.
“The development can, and should, adopt an urban design model that does not falsely and needlessly pit real estate development and the creation of new floor space against public interest,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The name Mumbai is believed to come from Mumba devi, patron deity of fishermen, or kolis. They are among the city’s earliest inhabitants, with settlements dating back more than 400 years.
As the city morphed into a financial hub, the kolis have been squeezed into smaller spaces to make way for high-rise buildings and business districts, while the docks became less critical to the economy.
Plans to redevelop Sassoon Dock, which was built in 1875 on reclaimed land by a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community, stalled before.
But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on making India more business-friendly, a new plan to redevelop the port land, including Sassoon Dock, was drawn up.
While the plan has not been made public, it has sparked a debate among architects and planners who have seen it.
They say the plan demarcates 30 percent of land for open spaces, 30 percent for transport and infrastructure, and the remainder for mixed-use developments – businesses, offices and homes, including for those displaced by the redevelopment.
Alongside, the government must also provide alternate opportunities for those who depend on the docklands for a living, said Neera Adarkar, an urban planner in Mumbai.
“That entire belt provided livelihoods to people for more than two centuries – not just fishing, but also manufacturing,” said Adarkar, who was involved in the rehabilitation of the city’s mill workers.
“The needs and aspirations of the city are very different from those of the market, and it’s very important that the government address the concerns of the people who otherwise cannot benefit from the market,” she said.
In Mumbai, nearly 60 percent of the 18 million population lives in slums and other informal homes, many lacking amenities such as running water and toilets.
Across the country, there is a shortage of nearly 20 million urban homes, according to consultancy KPMG.
Mumbai’s eastern waterfront, controlled largely by the port trust, includes several docks, hundreds of shanties, as well as colonial-era buildings, mangroves and mud flats frequented by flamingos several months of the year.
But residents only have limited access to the waterfront, which is unfortunate for a coastal city like Mumbai, said Patel.
Urban design models in India generally waste vast amounts of land in the mistaken belief that having adequate floor space for businesses and homes, as well as a robust network of streets and parks, is impossible, he said.
The revival of docklands in cities such as Singapore, New York and London shows it can be done, he said.
“The traditional urban design model should be abandoned in favour of one that is not wasteful, so that Mumbai’s acute shortage of floorspace, as well as public spaces can be addressed,” Patel said.
“Otherwise, an opportunity to galvanise Mumbai’s economy by creating new jobs and housing will be lost.”
At the same time, planners must keep the fishing community in focus, said Rajhans Tapke, general secretary of the Koli Mahasangh association.
“Any plan must prioritise the fishermen; we must have a say in the redevelopment,” he said. “We agree that our docks need to be modernised. But that cannot come at the cost of our livelihoods and homes.”
Some planners, campaigners and dock workers have called for the Mumbai Port Trust to give up its charge of the docklands to better address concerns about sustainability and social housing.
The redevelopment masterplan, which is awaiting approval from the federal government, will seek feedback from the public, said Sanjay Bhatia, chairman of the Mumbai Port Trust.
Ferry services and cruise terminals are being added on the waterfront, and Sassoon Dock is being upgraded with an air-conditioned fish market and tourist amenities, he said.
“These will help revive the area, bring in tourists and create jobs for locals,” he said.
“But we are also committed to preserving heritage structures and the lung space of the docklands. We are not going down the path of giving over all the land to developers,” he said in his office decorated with maritime maps and sepia-toned photographs.
At the Sassoon Dock Art Project, pride in the old ways as well as hopes for the future were reflected in the murals and installations, popular with visitors for taking selfies.
“The dock is a part of the DNA of the city; it’s inevitable that there will be a transition, that there will be modernisation,” said Giulia Ambrogi, co-founder of St+art, which curated the project.
“But it needs to be inclusive of the original residents, while also including other residents and tourists,” she said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation