Driving on Palm Beach Marg at a speed of more than eighty kilometers per hour was pretty normal even though the speed limit is prescribed at sixty. It was one of the few stretches of asphalt around Bombay where you could actually exceed the speed limit; of course not counting the recently built expressway. Palm Beach Marg weaves across the outer reaches of Mumbai’s (erstwhile Bombay) satellite city, Navi Mumbai as it touches upon the supposedly upscale but largely empty high-rise apartments popularly known as NRI Seawoods Estate and terminates at the core of the Central Business District at Belapur.
Five years ago, driving along this stretch of road was a pleasure as you could see another Navi Mumbai node, Nerul and the adjacent Parsik hill in the distance on one side and the creek from across the mangroves on the other. The monumental Seawoods Estates loomed large in the distance seemed like the only sign of intrusive human settlement. A large holding pond between proposed developments was attributed to Big Brother wanting us to keep eyes off Apsara, the nuclear reactor at Trombay across the bay.
As I drove on Palm Beach Marg this December, barely minutes after landing at Mumbai’s international airport, I could barely see through the smog. Although it was still early in the day, you could see scores of people out for an early morning walk eager to breathe in the ‘fresh morning air’. A carefree spirit on his motorbike returning either from a night call center job or still drunk from the previous night’s revelries cut right across the road, causing us to swerve sharply (with no reduction in speed nevertheless). Although I hadn’t slept the previous night, I tried to take in the changed urbanscape of Palm Beach Marg. As the morning light filtered through the smog, I saw ghostly shadows of seemingly high rising walls alongside the road. I looked closer with sleepy eyes to realize that the previously distant Nerul had gradually moved toward the otherwise serene Palm Beach Marg. The high walls were in fact high-rise buildings, still in a state of incompleteness but slated for occupancy in a few months, my dad informed me.
The remaining vacant apartments at NRI Seawoods complex were bought over by Reliance en masse supposedly to house their DAKC (Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City) employees few kilometers away. In fact, construction of the second stage of the NRI complex was to begin soon. A monumental-looking almost palatial in appearance announced Delhi Public School in big bold neon signs adjacent to the complex. A cartel of IAS officers, said my dad, had managed to overturn certain environmental laws and build a high rise apartment building on the ‘other’ side of the Marg. Thankfully, the holding pond opposite to Apsara still existed and actually provided a much-needed point of destination for citizens seeking passive recreation.
I took in changed landscape with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was glad to see Navi Mumbai develop by leaps and bounds while on the other hand, flouting of environmental laws (as few as they exist) and disregard for natural mangroves was distressing. As we drove into Belapur, I could still see empty and stark skeletons of buildings built in the previous real estate boom time. In the end, it all turned out to be speculator-driven. Progress or development is often viewed with a sense of optimism but such narrow definitions of development prove to be short term gains.
Palm Beach Marg is just one road that runs along the spread that is Navi Mumbai today but it is adequately reflective of the scale and intensity of development elsewhere in the new city. New zoning laws are drafted at a rapid pace to replace the archaic ones created in the early 70s but vested interests continue to stay one step ahead. But not all is lost; there continues to be hope for a growing city next to a metropolis that has been attributed the tag of bursting at its seams for several years now. However, it still continues to thrive, sustain, and more importantly evolve.
On a side note, the palm trees on the divider on Palm Beach Marg are watered daily by a municipal corporation tanker and have managed to flourish amongst cars that are in too much of a hurry to give them a second glance.
cross-posted on Desicritics