Mumbai, ‘under construction’: Is there a solution for the series of unnecessary, wasteful projects?

The engineering departments of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai seem hell bent on new construction work that does nothing for the city. A few years ago it was bridges across the city that were declared unsafe, calling for urgent reconstruction. This was triggered by the collapse of a footbridge near the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in 2019.

The resulting panic was the perfect, instant fertiliser that led to numerous bridge replacement projects bursting forth. These were strongly advised by a professor from one of Mumbai’s oldest engineering colleges. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and reconstructions were trivial.

Over the past year, there has been a debate on the proposal to demolish the Malabar Hill Reservoir, deemed unsafe, and reconstruct it at a cost of over Rs 700 crore. According to the original proposal, this will require the construction of an additional tank at a further cost of Rs 700 crore and the cutting of 189 trees plus transplanting of another 200.

Fortunately, protests by citizens have persuaded the civic body to appoint a technical Committee of seven experts, four of whom are professors of the Indian Institute of Technology, and an eighth member who is a civic officer.

After the inspection of the tank, four of the experts, including one of the IIT professors, submitted a final report saying the tank needs minor repairs that are not urgent and that these can be carried out compartment by compartment without cutting any trees or interrupting the water supply.

The remaining three IIT professors and the civic officer have refused to sign that report and instead submitted an independent final report saying the tank cannot be repaired in stages and a separate additional tank – involving the cutting of several hundred trees – is a must. The first four have refused to sign the second report.

With two final reports in diametrically opposite conflict with each other, how does one proceed? The simplest option will be to invite international tenders for repair of the tank, compartment by compartment, without cutting any trees or interrupting the water supply. Let the international construction industry say it cannot be done. Then, work can proceed based on the second final report.

But if it can be done, without cutting trees and interrupting water supply, then two important issues arise.

The first is that we are being led to believe that professors, for no other reason other than that they have a high academic degree, are considered both technically infallible as well as immune to cajolement of any kind. It is now time to question that.

Second, what of the municipal officers who conceived of the scheme in the first place? An expenditure of Rs 1,400 crore is not trivial.

Should the hydraulic engineer and their colleagues not be held responsible for proposing a completely unnecessary project? Does no one lose their job? Or at least suffer a demotion? If there is zero punishment, will it not encourage more useless projects, with some going through with their uselessness undetected?

The author is a civil engineer and urban planner, one of the three authors who suggested the idea of Navi Mumbai.

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