Are Coastal Zone Regulations In Mumbai Reasonable?

Are Coastal Zone Regulations In Mumbai Reasonable?

Are Coastal Zone Regulations In Mumbai Reasonable?
Mumbai’s coastal zone regulations are unreasonably stringent. (Dreamstime)

If housing in a city is too expensive, usually a major reason is that the regulatory framework prevents people from building enough housing units in the city. If the demand for housing is too high, authorities might need to revise the regulations and allow supply to rise proportionately.

In Mumbai, for example, millions of people getting affordable housing units is a function of the building and environmental regulations being tweaked in sync with the demand reality in the city. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) intends to reclaim land in coastal areas and allow construction in No Development Zones (NDZ). But environmentalists and activists oppose this move. They think reclaiming coastal land and building in NDZs will destroy the natural environment.

Every city across the world has environmental regulations in place, but Mumbai’s coastal zone regulations might be a little too stringent. As former World Bank researcher Alain Bertaud points out, such restrictions do not impose great harm in rural areas. But the harm is immense in a city where nearly 20 million people live, and about half the population lives in informal settlements.

In Mumbai, construction is not permissible within 500 metres from the sea’s high tide zone – the coastal zone regulations clearly prevent the urban poor in the city from living in better, more spacious houses.

If a set of regulations is bound to fail, should we blame the overall regulatiory framework? Or should we blame people for not living up to a regulatiory framework that may be unreasonable?

Environmentalists prefer to place the blame on real estate developers and speculators. The Greater Mumbai Draft Development Plan 2014-34 had earlier classified NDZs as ‘developable’ land parcels, while mangroves and mudflats were classified as ‘natural areas’ that will remain no-go zones. This led to much opposition, so much so that BMC Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta pointed out it was a misconception that NDZs were “never developable zones”.

Recently, the Bombay High Court blamed BMC for violating the order to protect mangroves and prohibit construction in coastal regulation zones (CRZ). This was because BMC built a compound wall around the Kanjurmarg garbage dumping ground. For many decades, environmentalists, activists, and policy makers have supported various regulations that make construction impossible in valuable urban land in Mumbai.

Though there are environmental norms in place in all cities of the world, these are almost never so stringent as to make construction impossible in a space-strapped city. If similar regulations were in place in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro, these cities would not even have been built. Why then should one assume that Mumbai is a strange city where building in the coastal zone might lead to unusual harm? Environmentalists sometimes try to argue that this is so, but they have never adduced proof to that effect.

In Mumbai, many researchers point out, environmental restrictions serve little purpose except in Gorain in the Northwest suburbs. If rules do not respect the nature of a city and the needs of its people, it should not be surprising that the urban poor would think it is justified to violate the rules.

What’s more? Authorities and activists fear that real estate developers will make high profits and deplete environmental resources if they are allowed to construct in urban areas, so they prevent any improvement in housing standards of people. The government does not recognise the right of slum-dwellers who live in coastal areas. For example, building toilets and drainage is not permitted in coastal zones. Authorities forbid such activities even when it is obvious that allowing the construction of proper infrastructure in coastal areas will significantly improve the environment.  

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