Spanning a new era: bridge to tomorrow’s Mumbai

Spanning a new era: bridge to tomorrow’s Mumbai

Stray lapwings and gulls flap through the humid air as the tide rises and the mudflats slowly disappear near the Rubber Jetty in a decrepit corner of Mumbai known as Eastern Sewri. There’s no one around but a few ragged boys. On a rare, clear day you can glimpse the high rises of Navi Mumbai, the city that can give India’s commercial capital the space and opportunity to reinvent itself into a truly global megapolis.

There’s one problem. It takes the average commuter two hours to reach Navi Mumbai over rutted roads which, in some stretches, are little more than paths of mud.

That’s why the state government hopes that within a few months, gigantic pillars will begin to rise from the mudflats. The pillars will be the foundation of a 21.75km six-lane bridge—India’s longest—across the sea.

This is Mumbai’s long-awaited link to Nhava across the eastern bay in Navi Mumbai and beyond to the multibillion dollar sprawl of condominiums and industries planned across the eastern seaboard.

In Shanghai, the city Mumbai wishes to be, the sturdy 30km Dong Hai Bridge is the mirror of Mumbai’s Trans-Harbour Link (or just Harbour Bridge as some people call it). The people who created the S-shaped concrete structure don’t consider a bridge as a mere connecting link.

“A sea bridge is iconic, once made it becomes the identity of the city, more like instant recall. It has to be awe-inspiring. We worked at breakneck speed to finish the bridge in time, within there-and-a-half years," said Andrew Yeoward who works for UK-based consulting firm Halcrow Group Ltd. Yeoward was part of the technical and design team for the bridge.

The construction of the Trans-Harbour Link and its equally ambitious cousin, the Eastern Freeway are key to Mumbai’s ability to overcome the constraints of its 100-year-old infrastructure.

For 28-year-old Jagdish Sahu, a software engineer, it could mean a quick and comfortable commute from his Ghatkopar home to his office in Navi Mumbai.

“I have to travel via mudpaths and dirt tracks of Govandi (a Mumbai area) to reach my office in Vashi after two hours. By then, I’m exhausted and irritable," he said.

Four years after work commences on the Trans-Harbour Link and the Eastern Freeway—and if all goes well—it will take Sahu only 30 minutes to complete the commute from his home to Navi Mumbai.

“I will buy a new car. It is worth the toll." beamed Sahu.

Sahu’s car will be one of the 46,480 passenger cars that will find their way on the Harbour Bridge by 2011. Almost 20% of the traffic crossing the Thane creek will be diverted to the Harbour Bridge by then. The Rs4,500 crore project is the gateway to a new megapolis with special economic zones, tax free enclaves that are virtually private cities, and a state-of-the-art international airport.

The special economic zones sprawl across 4,377ha and the largest portion is being developed by Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire chairman of conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. It will be the most important and modern industrial zone to be built in the country. “Without the Harbour Bridge, all development in Navi Mumbai is useless. It is the project of the century that will redefine connectivity," said Anil Deshmukh, the minister for the state’s public works department.

It will take a commuter a mere 15 minutes to traverse the 21.75km length of the bridge, but getting on to the bridge, and off, it is another story. The government has a plan to improve connectivity on either site (this is called the dispersal system) that covers 100 sq. km and a population of around 12 million people (a working population of 3.5 million).

However, even the bidding process was delayed by almost a year after the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, the state-government agency in charge of the project, disqualified a consortium headed by Reliance Energy Ltd. The consortium went to court and in September the Supreme Court ruled that it should be alllowed to bid and gave it three months to do so.

Apart from time, the project will save cost, said an expert. Every hour saved on a commute is worth Rs100, said Professor S.L. Dhingra from the civil engineering department of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. “Each of us will save Rs300 a day, two ways. And saving time accounts for only one-fifth of the money we will save. By 2016, we will save Rs1,000 crore an annum," he added.

The government has fixed a tentative toll of Rs2.25 per km for the Harbour Bridge.

Commuters, and companies based in Navi Mumbai think it is well worth that much.

“My people are haggard by the time they reach work," said Swaroop Kumar, president, drug discovery and development, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd. “The bridge will actually increase their efficiency and sense of well-being. We set shop in Navi Mumbai because its pace of growth is faster and more organized than Mumbai, but connectivity is a hindrance," he added.

According to Kumar, the current commute is a source of embarrassment to the company, especially with overseas visitors. “While Navi Mumbai is worth showing off, the route and time taken from the airport is appalling. Several (of our visitors) even ask us why there is no bridge. They like to wrap up meetings by two in the afternoon because they say they want to reach (Mumbai) in time for dinner," Kumar said.

This is the first article in the series on Mumbai’s urban infrastructure titled The Mumbai Project that is being carried by HT Mumbai.