‘Dark forces will be unleashed’: the fire temple v the Mumbai metro

The Indian city desperately needs its new metro, but Zoroastrian priests are warning of a ‘backlash from nature’ – and they’re not the only detractors.

In early October, a petition was sent to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, about the latest phase of the Mumbai metro – a 33.5km stretch that is currently under construction.

The petition claimed that the metro, if built, would “breach the magnetic circuits” of two Zoroastrian fire temples, thus “diminishing their spiritual powers” and unleashing “dark forces”. Signed by 11,000 people, the petition concluded that, the temples being “living, vibrant … intermediaries between God and mankind” as they are, if these “holy fires are defiled, the backlash from nature will not spare those responsible”.

The third phase of Mumbai’s metro network will pass under some of the oldest, swankiest and most built up enclaves of south Mumbai – and will indeed tunnel close to two sacred Zoroastrian fire temples and a well invested with boon-granting powers. The dwindling Zoroastrian or Parsi community might number fewer than 45,000 in Mumbai (and just 56,000 in all of India) of the city’s roughly 18 million residents. But they are a high-profile group – and many of them have begun to see Ashwini Bhide, managing director of the Mumbai Metro Railway Corporation (MMRC), as an unlikely fifth horsewoman of the apocalypse.

Nor is it just Parsi priests fighting the metro. The project faces the ire of environmentalists, heritage activists – and, perhaps most vocal of all in this most Indian of cities, cricketers.

Mumbai desperately needs its new metro to begin to salvage its disastrously inadequate public transport system. Today the bulk of the burden is borne by the colonial-era commuter train network, which takes seven million passengers a day – seven times its intended capacity. On 29 September, 22 people died after a stampede on a footbridge at Prabhadevi, a station grossly ill-equipped to service the business towers that have risen above the former textile district of Lower Parel.

Would one risk constructing a metro line under a nuclear reactor? An imperial fire is far more delicately balanced. – Hanoz Mistry

The first two phases were relatively uncontroversial. Phase 1, managed by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and a joint venture between Reliance Infrastructure, the French company Veolia and the Maharashtra government, is an 11.5km east-west elevated railway that opened in 2013. Phase 2 is 40km elevated suburban train line that is currently half-built.

Only the third phase is underground – and only the third phase passes under South Bombay, or SoBo, a pampered district where tolerance for intrusive metro construction is lower because so few of the rich residents need to use it. The stakes for approval of this phase, however, are high: it’s a $3.6bn (£2.7bn) partnership between the Indian government and the state of Maharashtra, with loans from the Japan International Cooperation Agency and hefty contracts for Indian agencies, as well as Chinese and Turkish infrastructure giants.

Bhide insists that the metro won’t damage the Parsi temples. At a meeting brokered by the state’s chief minister between the metro authorities and a Parsi delegation that included the two clerics who put forward the petition, Bhide pointed to government studies that declared the construction safe.

“We explained to them that the tunnel was going nowhere under the sanctum sanctorum,” she says. “Even the wells from which water is drawn for ceremonies are safely distant from the alignment. Moreover, they are embedded in the soil layer, and there’s a large buffer between that and the tunnel which bores through the basalt rock below.”

Firoz Kotwal, who presided for several decades over the Wadia Atash Behram temple in question, confirmed as much. “The MMRC team convinced us with concrete proof that there was no danger at all to the fire temple, and the chief minister gave us a personal assurance of safety. So the hue and cry is baseless,” Kotwal says. “Neither Zoroastrianism nor its rituals are in any danger from the metro tunnel.”

Kotwal also says that the “mystic circuits” cited in the petition are not a part of the ancient texts of Zoroastrianism in its 6th-century incarnation, but were introduced by the 19th-century Kshnum cult. Nevertheless, the idea has stuck. “And the minute you bring in religion, the government also panics.”

The high priest of Zoroastrianism’s holiest shrine (at Udvada in neighbouring Gujarat) and the community’s representative in the secular National Commission for Minorities is similarly concerned that the petition is fear run amok. “It is the work of a minuscule group with nothing better to do,” says Dastur Khurshed Dastur. “How to deal with eccentric people with closed minds out to whip up a fear psychosis?”

The Parsi Times has devoted several issues to clearing up what it calls “misinformation” regarding the 187-year-old temple, including pointing out that the MMRC certified that the temple was structurally sounder than most of its peers in Girgaon, a congested retail district. (Eight-five of the 348 buildings surveyed by MMRC were identified as having structurally problems ranging from “severe” to “very severe”.)

But the petition diehards aren’t letting up. “What about spiritual integrity?” says Hanoz Mistry, one of the signatories. “An Atash Behram [temple] is a composite whole, not just the consecrated fire enthroned in the sanctum sanctorum. There is no such thing as safe distance.

“Would one take the risk of constructing a metro line under a nuclear reactor, even though the concerned engineers may give all kinds of assurances on safety and structural stability? An Atash Padshah (imperial fire) is far, far more delicately and sensitively balanced and spiritually exalted.”

One compromise proposed by the delegation is to move the tunnel so that it passes just outside foundations of the fire temple wall.

But that would just be the first of the metro’s obstacles. Public hysteria has grown around the idea that the metro’s maw would swallow 20 cricket pitches from the public green of Azad Maidan, equally hallowed ground to some sports fans in this city.

The powerful Maharashtra Cricket Association complained that the field would be lost to thousands of players young and old. They also note that the Mumbai police have commandeered an additional patch, to accommodate the group of protesters recently evicted from their traditional rallying ground, near the government secretariat – again, because of the metro construction.

Bhide argues the cricketers have the facts wrong. “Only 3.5 hectares of the 20 hectare [green] would be affected, and that, too, only during construction. The state’s cricket association has relocated some of these, and staggered timings for play.”

There have also been controversies centred on the MMRC’s commandeering of a 25-hectare tract of the green belt in the Aarey Milk Colony for a car depot, challenged by the National Green Tribunal, since 3,130 trees would be affected. And, more recently, about insufficient soil-testing on a stretch of tunnel below the “heritage mile”, an area of grand stone mercantile buildings. In August, a 100kg cornice fell off the JN Petit Library, a 119-year-old neo-Gothic building that has been recognised by Unesco.

Activists blamed the metro for the accident, and in October the Bombay High Court issued a two-month stay on metro construction work to reinforce the Petit building. Several other buildings, meanwhile, have developed cracks.

It is difficult to determine whether this has anything to do with the tunnelling: unlike Kolkata’s challenging soft-soil conditions, which stymied the construction of India’s first metro for years, Mumbai is built on basalt rock, and the metro will pass 25 metres below the surface.

But the MMRC is not helping its cause by dragging its feet over inquiries made under the Right to Information Act.

Whatever the validity of the protests and dangers, tunnel vision might be the bigger enemy. “The city will come to a standstill in a few years” without the metro, Bhide says. And phase three will almost certainly go forward regardless of the controversy: 14% of the civil work is complete, three tunnel boring machines have been lowered into the ground and another six are ready to go.

Magnetic circuits and dark forces might delay completion beyond the planned opening date of 2021, but the existential question for the metro is when, not if: with 1.7 million commuters expected daily there is, quite literally, too much riding on the outcome.

Published on The Guardian