Constructing within planetary boundaries: Warnings from Mumbai’s coastal road project

23 August 2023
ABOUT THIS Perspective

The building and construction sector in India is marred with inherent contradictions – it is at once an employment generator and a highly polluting sector. It stresses the question: How do we balance human needs without compromising earth systems?

In a country where good job creation is an urgent need that underpins inclusive economic growth, the question of how we can accomplish this while staying within planetary boundaries is central. Infrastructure development, of which the buildings and construction sector is a huge part, remains a key area of focus for the government. After agriculture, construction is the largest employer in the country, with over 12 percent of all employed workers, and a significant contributor to the GDP at 7.1 percent. But infrastructure development and construction, while drivers of economic growth, come at a significant cost to the environment.

According to Government of India, the buildings and construction sector remains carbon-intensive, accounting for 32 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This calls for an urgent need to decarbonize the sector by using low-carbon materials, creating ambitious energy codes, and designing energy efficient buildings, as suggested by the IPCC. But we must go beyond efforts to decarbonize. It is critical to move away from resource-intensive, extractive, and polluting infrastructure development and instead ensure that projects are designed to serve the three simultaneous goals of (i) sparking greater economic connectivity and activity, (ii) generating employment and livelihoods, and (iii) preserving delicate ecologies.

The Mumbai Coastal Road Project (MCRP) that is currently underway is an example of a project that overlooks this important trinity. The MCRP, envisaged by the Brihamumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) as an ambitious project of land reclamation, tunnels, flyovers, elevated roads, and sea walls, is being built along Mumbai’s western seafront to decongest existing roads. In addition to easing traffic, the MCRP promises to improve the city’s productivity, enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants, and create employment opportunities.

Far from fulfilling these promises, the MCRP was embroiled in controversy when it became evident that the mega infrastructure project would usurp vital coastal regions used for fishing activities, threatening already vulnerable livelihoods of fisherfolk in Mumbai. A study commissioned by the BMC found that MCRP – still months away from completion – has already led to a 50 percent reduction in the incomes and daily catch of fisherfolk. The loss in livelihoods is especially severe for women who mostly catch fish by hand. The destructive impacts of this project are so severe that the IPCC calls it a maladaptive infrastructural intervention which is posed to disrupt local fishing livelihoods while causing damage to intertidal flora and fauna.

MCRP’s wide-ranging destructive impact begs the questions: whose productivity is this mega project supposed to enhance? Beyond the temporary construction jobs that are generated while the project is underway, who will ultimately benefit from the employment opportunities it is expected to create, and what livelihoods will be sacrificed in service of these ‘other’ opportunities? And at what cost to the environment?

It is undeniable that in India, construction, a resource-intensive sector, continues to offer job opportunities to farmers and workers moving away from low-productivity agriculture. But construction is itself a low-wage sector, deploying largely casual labour, and often subjecting workers to occupational hazards and poor working conditions.

But while projects such as the MCRP come at a great social and ecological cost, the significance of the construction sector cannot be overstated. In a coastal city such as Mumbai, which faces the combined threat of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, addressing infrastructural inadequacies such as housing, drainage, and sanitation necessitates construction. The construction sector is at once critical for helping humans adapt to climate change and a threat to decarbonization.

In an era of rampant climate change-induced destruction, we must consider planetary boundaries as a crucial condition under which to create jobs. While the promise of 100 million jobs in the construction sector is attractive, short-term job creation must not occur alongside biodiversity loss, deforestation, and heightened resource extraction that can have damaging long-term consequences leading to a loss of livelihoods on a larger scale.

Infrastructure development and the building and construction sector, then, faces a grand challenge: how to balance human needs without compromising earth systems? While the solution may be complex, it is indisputable that it cannot be achieved by threatening livelihoods and disrupting human-nature relations.