The 7 Islands of Mumbai

Over a period of 5 centuries Bombay, which was one of oldest and best example of fight for human survival in Indian history, has slowly transformed into today’s Mumbai (or Greater Mumbai). What do we mean by ‘transformed’? Typically the answer to such questions has the same plot - start with the first chapter (old school is always the best school!). Let’s turn the hourglass and race against time.

Chapter 1: Before the High Tide

“All things exist in sevens, since it is the nature of the universe to exist in sevens” – Enoch Tan, creator of Mind Reality

7 days of creation, 7 days in a week, 7 deadly sins, 7 notes in music, 7 colors in a rainbow, 7 states of matter, 7 continents of the World, 7 stars of the Big Dipper, 7 seas, snow white’s 7 dwarfs and James Bond 007!

The story of Mumbai also starts with 7 – The Seven Islands of Bombay.

Once upon a time there was an archipelago of lush green seven islands, dotted with 22 hills at the west coast of India, with the Arabian sea washing through them at high tide. These were the habitat of Kolis, the local indigenous people of western India whose main means of living was fishing.They consisted of Bombay, which was only 24 km long and 4km wide from Dongri to Malabar Hill (at its broadest point) and was the main harbour and nucleus of British fort around which the city grew, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mazagaon, Worli, Parel and Mahim.

The Seven Islands of Bombay

Chapter 2: City by the Sea

For centuries, the islands were under the control of successive indigenous empires before being ceded to the British East India Company. The waves were progressing inwards at Worli and Mahim, which turned the land between the islands into a swamp, making Mumbai islands extremely unhealthy and journeys between them dangerous.During the next 150 years many reclamations were undertaken to improve matters. From 1782 onwards, huge amounts of sand was dredged and rocks blasted off the hills situated on the islands were quarried on account of many large-scale civil engineering projects aimed at merging all seven islands. Under the first project, causeways were developed over small creeks of Umarkhadi and Pydhonie to join Mazagaon to Bombay.

Phase I

Hornby Vellard Project

Then governor William Hornby gave a nod for  the building of a sea-wall named Hornby Vellard ( Portuguese word ‘vallado’ meaning fence or embankment) to block the Worli creek sealing the Great Breach (Breach Candy) between Dongri, Malabar hill and Worli. The wall was expected to block the incoming waves from flooding the low lying areas of the city and was completed in 1784. It, thus, facilitated the reclamation of 400 acres of land on which the city spread.

The surroundings of Mahalaxmi, Kamathipura, Tardeo and parts of Bycullah were inhabited by the crowd from central city. The cost was estimated at about Rs. 1,00,000. Eventually many causeways were built to connect various land masses developed. It included a causeway from Salsette to Sion in 1803 and Mahim to Bandra in 1845. Mahim and Bandra were joined at a total cost of Rs 1,57,000 granted by Lady Avabai Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, wife of the first baronet Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, from her personal pocket.

Colaba Causeway

The Colaba causeway was completed in 1838 joining Colaba, Old Woman’s Island and nearby small islands to Bombay. In 1870, the hills of Chinchpokli and Byculla area were quarried and thrown into the sea, to fill up the gaps around railway lines and land masses so as to leave no room for stagnant water. The Bombay City Improvement trust completed reclamation of a massive 90,000 square yards of land alongside the west coast of Colaba by 1905.

 The Seven Islands of Bombay

Phase II

Backbay Reclamation

City became the important centre of trade and commerce and additional plans were made to reclaim more land for building roads and rail tracks. Bombay began to attract many traders and population increased quickly from 13,726 in 1780 to 9,77,822 in 1906. To accommodate the exponentially growing population major constructions happened in Bombay from 1870 to 1970 which ended with the Backbay Reclamation.

The Seven Islands of Bombay

This was followed by another proposal by the Development Directorate in 1917. They aimed to reclaim 607 hectares of land filling up the entire Backbay by 1945 at an overall estimated expenditure of Rs 11 crores. However, the construction came to a steady halt when The Backbay Enquiry Committee headed by K F Nariman pointed out faults in the construction like an inefficient dredging craft and leakage of 9,00,000 cubic yards of sand through the new sea wall constructed under this project. Eventually, 94 of the 100 hectares developed was sold to military and on the remaining Marine Drive was established.Third Backbay Reclamation project built the Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade over the garbage of the city illegally dumped into the Arabian sea!

Chapter 3: As the City Grew!

“Self-interest is the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for a man with self-surrender.” – Henryi Frederic Amiel, Swiss Philosopher.

The Supreme Court slowed down the reclamations since 1970 in the interest of protecting the shoreline and fishermen. And the Supreme Court has added more restriction in 1990s with the Coastal Regulatory Zones. Why did they have to put these restrictions?  Every city at the coast has wetlands, wastelands, mangroves and salt-pan lands which act like buffers in slowing down the high tide before it reaches the mainland.

In the past 10 years each of these has been destroyed systematically in Mumbai. For the construction of Bandra-Worli sea link the Mithi river is blocked with reclamations. 20,000 hectares of wetlands were destroyed in the name of urbanisation in Vasai-Virar and 7,000 hectares of wetlands were replaced by Jawaharlal Nehru Port. So no cushion is left to absorb the surplus water of the sea during the high tide or for the heavy rains during the monsoons. The water has no alternative but to hit the land.

The Seven Islands of Bombay
Versova Beach ErosionAll this water has to be kept under control if the land in Bombay is to remain habitable. The waves hitting the land of Bombay move with rapid and fierce force in the ocean which are slowly arrested by the shallow creeks near Colaba, Bandra and Mahim and they take the shape of the coast reaching the land at much calmer pace.

Now that the Mahim Bay and Back Bay are being reclaimed, the waves can only be dissipated by the Malad creek in the North. The violent waves hit the land and the course of sea changes drastically towards the Malad creek in north which is causing massive erosion of Versova Beach. The ill effects of excessive land reclamations can also be seen from the recurring floods in Ulhas and Vaitarna rivers in the low lying areas of Bombay. Only proper planning and prevention measures can find long term solutions to these geological hazards.