From the skies, the 21.8-kilometre-long sea-link appears like an umbilical cord that binds the island city of Mumbai to the hinterland – which is apt, for if all goes to plan, the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) or the Atal Setu, to be declared open by Prime Minister Modi on Friday, will help birth a Third Mumbai.
The country’s financial capital, home to the largest number of billionaires in India, the creative heart of its soft power, has long been served poorly in terms of infrastructure. For Mumbai’s over 21 million residents, the lack of available land – the city’s area of 468 sq km translates into a density of 50,000 people per square kilometre – has meant that the only thing Maximum about the City is the pressure it puts people under.
In 1965, two architects, Charles Correa and Pravina Mehta, and Shirish Patel, an engineer by training and an urban planner at heart, wrote a paper in an issue of MARG magazine proposing the idea of a New Bombay, east of the existing one. While New Bombay did eventually come up – the birthing was mired in bureaucratic delays and corruption – their proposal to build a road and rail bridge over the sea from Sewri in the island city to Nhava Sheva where the Jawaharlal Nehru Port would come up, remained on paper. Now, 59 years on, that connector has finally arrived, albeit in a snazzier and different form.
A massive makeover
Mumbai is in the midst of a $30-billion makeover, and if the city appears like a giant construction site it’s because of the staggering scale of the reimagining of its colonial infrastructure. MTHL is a key piece of that effort. There’s also the 360-kilometre-long metro being built, as also the coastal road that serves as a parallel artery hugging the coast along the city’s north-south axis. But equally ambitious, given the linear geography of the city, is the plan to create a circular east-west connectivity. In addition to the projects mentioned above, there is a road connector underway between Worli in the south west of the city to Sewri on the eastern seafront from where MTHL starts. There’s also a tunnel being built which will connect Marine Drive to the Eastern Freeway at the point where MTHL begins. Finally, at the other end of MTHL, in Navi Mumbai across the sea, there is the proposed Chirle-Palaspe which will lead motorists directly to Mumbai’s second international airport which is under construction and also join it to the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Currently, it takes 30 minutes to reach the expressway; the Chirle-Palaspe connector will bring that time down to 5 minutes.
If these projects are indeed ready by next year as expected, they will cool some of the heartburn in Mumbai over losing the competitive edge to GIFT City in Gandhinagar or even Chennai and Bengaluru. “There is now the potential to create Maharashtra’s own golden triangle connecting Mumbai-Pune-Nashik which is the state’s industrial and prosperous belt,” says AV Shenoy, transport expert and member of the Mumbai Mobility Forum. “Improving connectivity between key economic zones such as the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the JNPT Port, as also the Mumbai-Goa highway can open up new market and opportunities for Mumbai,” says Sanjay Sharma, chief financial officer, Tata Projects which developed one section of MTHL.
MTHL cuts down travel time between Ulwe in Navi Mumbai to South Mumbai from the 2 hours it takes at present to half hour, opening up the real estate market east of Mumbai, just across 16.5km stretch of the sea. The state government has planned the ‘Third Mumbai’ at the Ulwe end of India’s longest sea-bridge. This will be developed by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA). Part of the mandate is to create a second business hub such as the Bandra-Kurla Complex that houses the headquarters of big banks, on a greenfield 150-hectare plot at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Towns in Raigad district such as Ulwe, Pen, Panvel, Uran, Karjat and Alibaug which have emerged as Mumbai’s Hamptons since the pandemic, are all part of the envisaged Third Mumbai.
A gung-ho Devendra Fadnavis, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister, believes that the creation of Third Mumbai facilitated by MTHL can scale up Mumbai’s economy from the existing $140 billion to $250 billion. “From residential projects (luxury and affordable), commercial complexes, data centres, hubs for MNCs and banks, and financial companies to large knowledge parks, Third Mumbai will have everything,” says an MMRDA official. A New Town Development Authority (NTDA) is being formed to plan and oversee the development of 323 sq km. Around 200 villages, including 80-90 of them under the Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area (NAINA) will be a part of NTDA.
Third Mumbai will also become the new playground for two of India’s wealthiest men. While Mukesh Ambani already owns a 500-acre complex in Navi Mumbai and possibly other land parcels, Gautam Adani is developing the Navi Mumbai international airport which is part of the ₹14,300 crore Navi Mumbai Influence Notified Area spread over 370 sq km. In Mumbai, of course, while Ambani controls large parts of the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Adani has now taken over the ambitious Dharavi Redevelopment Project, less than 5km east of BKC.
But it’s not just Ambani and Adani who stand to benefit. Leading developer Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of the Hiranandani Group, who foresaw Mumbai’s northward growth more than 25 years ago when he built integrated townships in Powai and Thane, was one of the early movers buying large land parcels in Navi Mumbai and Raigad. This includes 500 acres in Panvel and 250 acres in Nagaon and Alibaug. When MTHL finally opens after it was first mooted 18 years ago, it will be another “I told you so” moment for him.
Hiranandani, recently re-elected as chairman of National Real Estate Development Council, says the sea span will be a gamechanger for Mumbai’s economic growth. “I believe it will lead to a quantum leap in the next five years for real estate and it is unparalleled,” he says comparing the effects of MTHL to what one expressway did for Delhi connecting it to Gurgaon in Haryana and Noida and beyond in Uttar Pradesh, spurring growth in the NCR. Hiranandani’s acquisition encouraged other developers including Godrej, the Wadhwa group and Adani Realty to acquire 100 acre-plus land parcels in that belt.
Hiranandani cites the example of China to explain the multiplier effect of a housing boom on economy. “China witnessed double digit growth for 10-15 years where they were focused on infrastructure, manufacturing and housing. But, today, while infrastructure and manufacturing continue to do well in China, housing has collapsed plunging their GDP to less than 4%. The construction sector remains the second largest employment generator after agriculture in India.”
But, challenges remain
Pankaj Kapoor, managing director, Liases Foras, the only non-broking real estate research firm in India, has a word of caution though. “Planning authorities should not play the landlord who want to monetise the land. The reason that the creation of New Bombay in the ‘70s and the ‘80s did not ease the pressure on Mumbai was because the planning authority CIDCO chose to monetise the land banks which kept the prices up. The government should allow market forces to play.”
A recent report by Colliers, ‘MMR Infrastructure Upgrading Real Estate,’ projected nearly 9 million sq ft of new office supply opening at the Navi Mumbai end of MTHL over the next three years, largely driven by IT, while on the Mumbai end Worli and Lower Parel in central Mumbai are likely to see 5 million sq ft of new office supply in the same time period.
“This is first time in decades that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) is undergoing a transformative infrastructure upgrade liberating it from the growth limitations that comes from the virtue of being a linear city,” said Vimal Nadar, senior director, research, Colliers.
Urban planners HT spoke to repeatedly flagged two concerns: Better and affordable public transport and access to affordable housing to make a real transformation in the city. “The government needs to primarily focus on affordable housing and commercial development around MTHL and prevent land sharks and large developers from jacking up land prices. The government also needs to promote public transportation like AC buses on MTHL,” says Ashok Datar, economist and transport expert. At present the one-way toll on MTHL is ₹250 for all private vehicles.
Shirish Patel, one of the three original proponents of New Bombay rues that MTHL has come “50 years too late.”
Patel says “Growing eastwards would have helped decongest Mumbai. That was the whole idea of proposing the Sewri-Nhava Sheva link, but the government and policy makers allowed growth to move northwards alone. The builders had a self-interest expanding the city northwards, in keeping Mumbai’s land in short supply and profit from its high prices. They feared that eastward growth would open up land and prices could fall in Mumbai.”
The engineer who recently co-authored a comprehensive book, ‘6 Metros’ comparing urban planning in New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo with Mumbai and New Delhi, strongly advocates that MTHL should integrate public transport so that it goes beyond becoming a showpiece road for Mumbai’s car owners.
“Public transport should be allowed at lower tariffs to truly make this an infrastructure for the common man. In many cities, public transport is free but here we expect it to be financially viable by itself. That’s always a mistake. Public transport is a supporting service that helps development and not a money-making endeavour on its own.”