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Created on Dec 27, 1995; last modified Nov 17, 1999.


The Great Breach

The only record which survives of large-scale engineering before the arrival of the Portuguese is that of the remnants of a massive stone causeway across the Flats on the island of Bombay. These Flats were the low-lying lands between Dongri and Malabar hills, seperated from the island of Worli by the Great Breach, through which the sea poured in at high tide.

Pydhonie and Umarkhadi

The Great Breach may have extended almost to Umarkhadi, the creek seperating Bombay from Mazagaon. Occasionally the two would be linked by a shallow creek at the site of the crowded present-day bazaar area of Pydhonie. Only the name, which means "foot wash", now gives a clue to the fact that it was once a creek, because this was probably the first piece of land to be reclaimed from the sea.

Quite as likely, Umarkhadi was also filled in soon after the arrival of the British and joined Mazagaon irretrievably to Bombay. The last story in which Mazagaon appears as a seperate island relates to its occupation by the Sidi of Janjira in 1690-1. He was repelled by a rag-tag navy of fishermen led by the amateur Parsi admiral Rustomji Dorabji.

The Hornby Vellard

Early efforts at land reclamation concentrated on the small creeks crossing the northern Flats of Bombay island. Several of these were dammed or filled in during the eighteenth century. As a result, the areas north and east of Umarkhadi and Mazagaon were slowly settled in this period. However, the next major reclamation was due to the closure of the Great Breach north of Cumballa Hill in 1784 by the building of a sea-wall called the Hornby Vellard. The wall allowed reclamation of the Flats and supplied about 400 acres of land for the extension of the crowded inner city. The precincts of Mahalaxmi, Kamathipura, Tardeo and parts of Bycullah were settled.

Colaba and Old Woman's Island

The fort area and the older parts of the Indian town were extremely crowded by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The rich English and Parsi merchants had already moved to the new suburbs of Mazagaon and Bycullah. In 1796, the island of Colaba was declared a cantonment area, and civilians were refused permission to build there. As boat traffic to Colaba increased over the next few decades and many people perished due to overloaded boats capsizing, the need for a Causeway became evident. The Colaba Causeway was completed in 1838, and used Old Woman's island as a stepping stone to Colaba.

[Image] Map of Bombay (1846): (59 Kbytes)

The First Backbay Reclamation Scheme

The first Backbay Reclamation Company was formed during the boom years of the early 1860's, with the stated purpose of reclaiming the whole of Backbay, from the tip of Malabar Hill to the end of Colaba. When the American Civil War ended in 1865, a depression set in and land prices fell. The company went bankrupt and was liquidated. The government took over the narrow strip of land that had been created and gave it to the BB&CI Railways for the purpose of laying a line from Churchgate to their new terminus in Colaba.

The Dockyards

The Backbay reclamation was a major fiasco. The real work took place on the eastern shore of Bombay. All the way from the Sassoon Docks in the south to Sewri in the north, land reclamation proceeded all through the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

The Elphinstone Land and Press Company was formed in 1858 to reclaim 250 acres of land from Apollo Bunder to Mazagaon, and a further 100 acres at Bori Bunder, to be given to the GIP Railways for building a the Victoria Terminus. The company went bankrupt with the 1865 crash, and their equipment, along with the already reclaimed land, was given over to the newly-formed Bombay Port Trust in 1873. By the mid 1880's the reclamations were complete, and wet and dry docks had been built.

Early Twentieth Century

The Port Trust continued its work well into the Twentieth century. Between 1914 and 1918 it completed building a dry dock and used the excavated earth to create the 22 acre Ballard Estate. In the meanwhile another ill-advised Backbay reclamation had gone the way of the first. However, this created the land on which one of the city's most well-known landmarks was built-- the Marine Drive. The Art Deco buildings west of the Oval Maidan also stand on land reclaimed by this scheme.

[Image] Map of Bombay (1954): (21.1 Kbytes)

Late Twentieth Century

The Independence did not bring reclamation work to an end. The third Backbay reclamation scheme was put into effect and yielded the small acreage on which the high-rises of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade are planted. The Naval Dockyards were reclaimed on the east, and smaller works were continued further north. A series of Supreme Court injunctions protecting the shoreline and access to it for fishermen have slowed such work since the 1970's. In the late 1990's the Supreme Court has further restricted reclamations by setting up Coastal Regulatory Zones.