Atal Setu Will Trigger Transformational Change but It Must Avoid Problems of Unplanned Development
It took over 60 years from conception to delivery, but Atal Setu, or the Mumbai trans-harbour link (MTHL), could be a game-changer for Maharashtra, exactly like the Mumbai-Pune Expressway (MPE), constructed by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) in 2002. Some may argue that the 701-kilometre (km) Samruddhi Mahamarg connecting Mumbai and Nagpur, also an MSRDC project, is even more significant. It connects Mumbai with Nagpur which is Maharashtra’s alternate capital and strategically located at the very centre of India. The Nagpur corridor will, indeed, benefit poorly served areas of Maharashtra, socio-economic forces and private enterprise will accelerate the benefits delivered by Atal Setu.
 
To understand this, let us examine the similarities between Atal Setu and MPE, an ambitious expressway to Pune inspired by the German autobahn, at a time when speed-breakers on Indian highways forced vehicles to a crawl as they wound their way through districts and towns. Like all infrastructure projects, MPE faced opposition during land acquisition, suffered from poor planning of entry and exit linkages, objections by environmentalists, antiquated bidding processes and technology.
 
In 1996, Reliance Infrastructure was the only bidder for constructing the expressway, demanding Rs3,200 crore and 78 additional concessions. The government then set up MSRDC and appointed RC Sinha as managing director. A maverick bureaucrat with a reputation for thinking outside the box, Mr Sinha took on the challenge of completing India's first six-lane, 94.5km expressway in 30 months by rewriting tender documents and concession agreements, selection of competent contractors and faster clearances. MSRDC committed to paying contractors within five working days or it would pay a 15% interest penalty. The excellent relationship between Mr Sinha and then state transport minister Nitin Gadkari saw the project completed in 2002 at a cost of just Rs1,600 crore.
 
MTHL was first proposed in 1963 by Wilbur Smith Associates and resurrected as part of the post-liberalisation infrastructure boom. For two decades, Maharashtra's powerful politicians, with vested interests in the realty sector, focused on exploiting emerging property hubs like Lower Parel, Bandra-Kurla, Andheri and New Bombay. Consequently, projects like the Atal Setu faced multiple iterations and delays. The Anil Ambani group had won a bid to build the link in 2006, but it amounted to nothing. Revival attempts in 2011 and 2013 led to viability and financing issues, turf wars and escalating costs. Finally, the Mumbai metropolitan region development authority (MMRDA) was tasked with constructing the 22km bridge in 2018, with financial aid from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), at a cost of nearly Rs17,840 crore.
 
Concerns and Challenges
Atal Setu, India's longest sea bridge (16.5km maritime connection and 5.5km land viaducts), is a marvel of modern engineering. However, inadequate planning of entry and exit roads threatens its utility. After paying a high toll of Rs250 for a 22km journey in 16 minutes, travellers face traffic jams at both ends – Sewri and Chirle. The MPE faced a similar situation when it initially connected Panvel to Dehu Road amidst traffic chaos at the two ends. This was gradually addressed when Mr Sinha took over the Panvel bypass from Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) and new roads linked the expressway to Hingewadi and Pune city.
 
Atal Setu's utility and viability hinges on the government's ability to complete connectors to New Mumbai international airport, MPE, decongest roads leading to Sewri entry point, and finish the Worli-Sewri connector within Mumbai. Only then would it meet the projected traffic target of 40,000 cars in the first year of operation. While there are plans for a new city akin to Vashi/Navi Mumbai, much of Chirle's land is owned by Reliance Industries for a special economic zone (SEZ), conspicuously absent during the inauguration.
 
Economic Momentum
Path-breaking infrastructure projects like MPE and Atal Setu have the potential to transform India's economic landscape. They can trigger socio-economic changes through private initiatives finding ways to overcome challenges. Despite initial connectivity issues, MPE sparked massive investment by the information technology (IT) Industry in Pune and Hingewadi, accompanied by a boom in educational institutions that attracted students from across India.  This contributed to an economic surge, prompting a flurry of construction for housing, offices, industrial spaces, and ancillary services such as entertainment hubs, shopping malls and restaurants. The furious pace of change expanded Pune's geographical limits, reportedly making it the largest city in Maharashtra at 485sqkm (square kilometres) after incorporating 23 villages into the Pune municipal corporation.
 
The growing population's pressing need for entertainment and leisure spurred a hotel boom between Mumbai and Pune. Connectors at both ends of the expressway have emerged over time and we are now witnessing an expansion of MPE. However, infrastructure development continues to lag and remains unplanned.
 
Pune airport, despite the massive economic boom and increase in domestic and international travellers, remains small, crowded and inadequate. The upcoming new airport in Navi Mumbai will provide some relief to travellers from Pune to Vashi, Nerul and Panvel. 
 
Although Atal Setu is touted as a connector to Navi Mumbai, it may remain unsuitable for daily commutes due to the high toll. The real economic benefit lies in swifter access coastal Maharashtra. Mumbai has already missed many opportunities to develop its spectacularly coast. The failure to construct an adequate airport at Sindhudurg turned into an opportunity for neighbouring Goa, when it built a second international airport at Mopa in the north.
 
 
The widening of the Mumbai-Goa highway has stagnated since 2010, prompting the Bombay High Court to remark, in 2022  that the pace of work to widen the highway was ‘disappointing to say the least’. This affects access to hundreds of kilometres of spectacular beaches from Mandwa to Sindhudurg for Mumbaikars starved of good holiday destinations over the past two decades of increasing affluence.
 
The latent demand is evident in property prices at Alibag, viewed as the Hamptons of Mumbai, soaring after a roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferry service cut the time and pain of travel and speed boat services were launched from a primitive and crowded jetty off the Gateway of India. Another set of beneficiaries will be the large population of migrant workers from coastal towns who become visible when political parties organise a fleet of buses to take them home for Ganpati festival in August.
 
The government must act swiftly to initiate public and private transport buses, potentially with concessional tolls, to stimulate private development by the leisure industry and generate employment.
 
Atal Setu's completion has triggered an irreversible process of change; whether this results in rampant construction and land exploitation (as with Mumbai’s mill lands and the shiny Bandra-Kurla complex struggling with congestion and connectivity issues for the large workforce) or takes the shape of planned and equitable development remains unknown. Everything depends on whether state leaders and Central leaders show the vision and foresight to put citizen’s needs ahead of their vested interests.
 
 
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