HC stays CIDCO project, says throwing money at people can’t solve displacement issue

Mumbai In a move that could have legal ramifications for major infrastructure projects across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), the Bombay High Court (HC) has temporarily stayed construction of the Uran Bypass Bridge in Navi Mumbai.

The project, which was taken up by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), was halted on grounds that it will permanently affect livelihoods of fisherfolk operating from a boat-landing centre in Uran Koliwada, which will become inoperable once the structure is built.

Proposed to ease traffic congestion around Karjat and Panvel, the Uran Bypass Bridge has faced opposition from local fisherfolk since 2017. Though the project affected persons (PAPs) have been assured compensation by the state government, the modalities of relief and the monetary amount are yet to be decided.

In November 2018, CIDCO transferred the responsibility of compensation to the Raigad district collector, who has since failed to take up the matter, according to petitioners who approached the HC for relief in March 2021.

“We find it astonishing that no thought has been given to the plight of persons directly affected by this project. Simply throwing money at people is not an answer to what is evidently a displacement problem, a question involving the livelihood of the poor and the marginalised, and essentially a question about the human condition of persons who depend on fishing for their daily earnings,” observed a bench led by justices Gautam Patel and Gauri Godse. The HC had considered the matter on Friday, July 29. A copy of the order was made available only late evening on Monday, August 1.

Dilip Koli, a petitioner in the matter (who is an artisan fisherman from Uran and spokesperson of the Paaramparik Machhimar Bachao Kruti Samiti), explained, “The reclamation and concretisation work for the bypass bridge will make the area unnavigable by boats. Mangroves, mudflats and small creeks in an area of over 2.5 acres will be buried. Around 137 fishermen and allied fish-workers who will lose their livelihood.”

The HC on Friday added, “We do not believe that the koli fishermen have ever been consulted nor have their objections or suggestions been invited since 2018. They are simply supposed to quietly accept a complete eradication of their centuries-old traditional fishing landing sites and are supposed to somehow manage for the rest of their lives and through future generations. No principle of development planning or environmental law allows us to accept such a stand.”

The HC’s comments come as a relief to fisherfolk not just in Uran, but across the larger MMR region, who are facing threats to their livelihood due to state-funded infrastructure projects. These include the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Coastal Road Project, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation’s Bandra-Versova Sea Link and Thane Creek Bridge (III) projects, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust’s expansion of its fourth container terminal at Nhava Sheva, and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (MMRDA) Trans Harbour Link bridge across Thane Creek.

“In all these cases, construction work began without first identifying the number of affected fisherfolk, or the manner in which they will be compensated for their loss. Since there are cases pending against all of these projects, we hope that the HC’s jurisprudence in the Uran Bypass Bridge case will be applied to them as well,” said Devendra Tandel, president of the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimaar Kruti Samiti.

The HC will consider the matter again on August 5. It has instructed both the state government and CIDCO “to take instructions as to what is the policy in regard to both aspects, i.e. compensation where there is a community affected by a public project, and, second, the policy if any in place in regard to providing an alternative location where the original site is shown to be affected.”

With regards to the first aspect, the Maharashtra government is yet to finalise a policy for compensating fisherfolk affected by state-funded development projects, pursuant to an August 2021 order of the Bombay High Court, in response to a petition by fishers whose livelihoods have been disrupted due to the Thane Creek Bridge-III project. Though a draft policy was brought out in December, it has been widely opposed by fisherfolk, who say the policy does not safeguard their intergeneration right to practise a traditional livelihood. In June, the Supreme Court directed the Maharashtra government to finalise the policy by September.

CIDCO did not respond to requests for comment.