Bombay has one of the longest city coastlines in the world, at approximately 140 kilometres. Being an amalgamation of seven islands will do that to a place.
The Bombay of today is a far cry from a city anybody could have ever planned or wanted to plan. Clearly something went right initially, and people flocked to this future here like bees to an apiarist. But it wasn’t built for 21 million people, regardless of the work done to make the city bigger, better, faster, meaner.
Given a coastline that is longer than Miami (100km) and Barcelona (110km) and just a tad shorter than that of Rio (150km), Bombay has the potential to make a lot of sandcastles if it so chooses.
It took four centuries and endless hours of work to turn an archipelago into one of the world’s biggest cities. To have achieved this back in the eighteenth century is even more impressive, in my opinion. The architects of a consolidated Bombay have changed six times (and counting) during the process of reclaiming land and sewing the seven islands together.
The first time I came to Bombay, I was very excited about the fact that I would be living near the sea. Till then, the only beaches I had visited were on holiday, and those memories were laced with fun - the idea of living in a city that allowed me constant access thrilled me. That is, until I saw Girgaum Chowpatty, Bombay’s most southerly beach. I remember craning my neck to see if really, that was all there was to it. It was coated with a layer of people, under which lay sand interspersed with plastic refuse. It was no surprise that no one was going swimming here. The crowd of people was a mix of food-venders, toy sellers, many out-of-towners, and some locals staring into the big bad sea.
Then came Juhu beach. This is when all the food stalls, balloon sellers, golawallahs, chaatwallahs, and ikka drivers used to throng the beach to sell their wares. I didn’t step foot on Juhu beach for eight years. And in that interim I had experienced Kashid, Alibag, and Vasai – all beaches across on what is lovingly refered to as the ‘mainland’ - the first two don’t entirely belong to Bombay, but they’re close enough to drive out to on lazy weekends, thereby allowing Mumbaikars to get a sense of proprietorship.
These beaches I liked. Fewer people, less traffic, no intrusion. To be honest, it was no Goa, but isolation in Bombay is rare, so I welcomed these places with open arms.
I saw Juhu beach go from a garish neon kaleidoscope to a relatively clean and open beachfront in 2007, three years after a court order was passed for it to clean up its act. It was refreshing to drive past and actually be able to view the sea, instead of the food-stalls that had previously cluttered the beach.
A little adjustment with relocating stalls and residents doing regular clean-up drives has led to some exceptional sunsets while driving by or strolling on a beach that has taken back some of the beauty it was born with.
It made me wonder what an ideal Bombay coastline would look like. A Bombay of a time gone by and a Bombay of a time to come.
Jean Elizabeth Dalal first came to Bombay in 1973. She had just finished a ten-week overland trip from London to Kathmandu and had been invited to Bombay by one of the people she met on this trip, Rustom, whom she married in in 1975. Jean’s Bombay of four decades ago is very different to mine today. When asked what her first time on a beach in Bombay was like, this is what she had to say:
I first experienced Juhu beach in 1973 and thought it was the most beautiful beach I had ever seen. It was clean with not a soul in sight, the sand was white and 'fluffy' and there was no rubbish on the beach at all. After Rustom and I got married, we used to go to Juhu often for a swim or a walk on the beach. I even made Rustom take me for a swim sometimes on weekdays before he went to work, because back then there was no traffic from Bandra to Juhu.
Comparing notes with Jean makes me feel like I’ve been living in a dystopian version of a city that I love so much. Even the food and drinks stalls that I have so vehemently spoken about were missing back in the early 70s. According to Jean there was only one stall selling drinks at the open entrance to the beach that we have recently reclaimed.
Jean’s experience with Bombay’s beaches doesn’t just end with Juhu. Marve was a getaway a few decades ago. If I think it’s relatively clean now, Jean feels differently.
We used to visit Marve quite a bit between 1977 and 1990 and the sea was clean and it was never too crowded. But as the years went by, the fisher folk started drying their fish on the beach. Suddenly there were hawkers selling drinks, coconuts, iced lollys, and it wasn’t the same. We stayed at the Resort Hotel for a weekend last year and the smell of drying fish was overpowering - the fisher folk have taken over the beach and it's so filthy you can't walk on it.
The population of Mumbai quadrupled from 5.8 million to 20.5 million people between 1970 and 2013. The burden on the city has increased at an exponential rate, leading to obvious problems like overcrowding, but also improper sewage and garbage disposal. Untreated sewage disposed into the sea is reaching hazardous limits. 45 percent of daily sewage gets let out into the creeks and the sea without any treatment. A sewage disposal project started by Bombay’s local government has been underway for the last seven years and of the 22 projected plants only one is nearing completion. From being able to swim in the beaches of Bombay, to thinking several times before dipping your toes in is a catastrophic change in such short span of time.
Michael Delfs, an urban designer at Foster & Partners, London, lived in Bombay for four years between 2006 and 2010. In that period he grew to love Bombay like most people do, slowly and with slight trepidation.
My relationship with the city itself moved in waves. Curiosity and awe ebbed to frustration and disgust, which were in turn replaced by amazement and wonder. I’m not sure I ever came to ‘like’ Mumbai – at least not in the sense that one likes something because it is pleasant. Rather, somehow, the cacophony and chaos and irrepressible vibrancy of the city became familiar, then comfortable, then simply home. To this day, every time I arrive in Mumbai there is a distinct moment after landing, as the car or rickshaw travels down Sahar Road towards the Western Express Highway, where the perpetual construction site of the airport gives way to the messiness of chai stands and motorcycles and traffic, and I take a deep breath and relax, feeling so at home.
The familiarity Bombay gives you is hard to come by. The people make the place but unfortunately the place doesn’t live up to the expectations of the people. The city has weak infrastructure and a civic body that refuses to mend the city any more than the bare minimum requires.
As an urban designer, Michael mentioned some factors that stare at us straight in the face when we look at Bombay objectively.
The untreated excrement and outflow of 20 million people have turned the water into a black, smelly, trash-filled cesspool. Untreated sewage, trash dumped on streets and washed down drains or thrown directly into the ocean, and industrial waste poured into rivers and creeks have polluted the local ocean beyond belief.
Bombay shares a line of longitude with Hawaii, the Caribbean, and large parts of the Indonesian archipelago. Just a few hundred kilometres to the south, the waters of Goa are clean and enjoyable. What a shame that in this city crying out for public space and recreation for the poor and middle classes, the most abundant natural asset is polluted almost beyond use.
This is a woe that resonates with every Bombay resident. A city teeming with life in every nook and cranny, yet stuck with limited resources for recreation. The imbalance is distressing.
Jean’s Bombay seashores of 1973 seemed idyllic. Could a Bombay of the future have a similar effect on its people? What would version 2.0 of a Bombay beachfront be?
For sections of beach like Girgaum Chowpatty and Juhu, a public park would be appropriate. The first 50 meters in from the road should be planted with trees to give shade during the hot months. Walking paths under the trees would give people an easy option for exercise. Picnic spots on the sand, on grass, or with permanent tables and benches would give people a place to come and sit with their families and friends. Interspersed in the park could be kiosks for buying fruit juice, sweets, and other snacks. Children’s play areas, cricket batting practice boxes, dog runs, etc. And at night, the entire promenade should be lit up so that people feel safe.
This is just a glimpse that Michael gives us into a beachfront that would be accessible and inviting to all and sundry. He further adds:
Chowpatty Beach is nearly ten hectares in area (including the beach and the parks, but not including the swimming club and Thackers restaurant). That’s the equivalent of fourteen football pitches all laid out side by side. This area should be full of things for people to do – families, children, couples, groups of friends. There’s enough space for everyone to enjoy. A similar park should be built at Juhu beach. The entire beach should have a publicly accessible walking/jogging path along its length. The path should be planted with trees for shade and maintained to keep it clean.
On paper it sounds easy, and to be honest, if we can construct something as mammoth as Bombay’s magnificent new airport terminal, then cleaning up and building rudimentary structures for our public spaces should be akin to child’s play. The sewage disposal project might be a long time coming, but until then, at least we would be able to have access to a beach with utility rather than just a sand bank for gathering en masse. It’s tunnel vision to invest in projects that have only a monetary ROI. And a good quality of life for the inhabitants of the city should always be a top priority.