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Of Mumbai and the future of its last surviving open spaces

Corporates and politicians are eyeing Mumbai’s open spaces for commercial gains
  • groundsOpen grounds remain a dream for many Mumbaikars  File Photo

Is history repeating itself in Mumbai, the first time as tragedy and the fourth time as farce? The Municipal Corporation is struggling to resuscitate the much-abused 2014-2034 Development Plan, which has drawn some 60,000 objections.

There is a repeat with the coast road, objections to which were allowed very briefly. A new variant, the third since 2011, is being unveiled by the end of this month under a new international consultant. All this is taking place before a single public hearing by the Shiv Sena-controlled corporation. Then there is also the omission of koliwadas from the Coastal Zone Management Plan.

The most recent snafu is the corporation’s open spaces policy: 1,068 plots straddle 1,200 acres, the equivalent of 588 football pitches. Open space being at such a premium in the “The City of Gold”, politicians and corporates are eyeing it. Shorn of obfuscation, the policy seeks to re-designate some of the remaining 600 spaces as recreation grounds instead of play grounds, facilitating vested interests to “adopt” them. Of the 458 plots given for adoption, around 225 are now managed by default by trusts and organisations, whose agreements have lapsed in the absence of an open spaces policy.

The BJP, a senior coalition partner in the Maharashtra government, returned the policy for review literally a day before the corporation was to decide. The earlier 2006 policy, under which nine spaces were given to “caretakers” who could then build gymnasiums and clubhouses on 33 per cent of the land and bar the public from access to them, was exploited by the Shiv Sena, which has a stranglehold over the corporation.

Here are just three of the six recreation grounds that have been built upon — Matoshri Arts & Sports Club, Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul and Swimming Pool and Probodhan Krida Bhuvan — speak for themselves.

The five-acre recreation ground occupied by Matoshri Club was leased to Sena corporator Ravindar Waikar, chairman of the civic education committee, in 1998. Corporation sources have alleged violation of rules barring the use of the structure for political (or religious) purposes. Membership, which in 1999 came for Rs96,000, stood at Rs2 lakh by 2002. Media reports suggest, the club has a swimming pool, squash and tennis courts as sports-related amenities, besides deluxe suites and bars, though the ground was leased only for recreation purposes. In further violation of the religious clause, some 11 grounds have been leased to Brahma Kumaris, who have built meditation centres in some of them.

After an eight-year suspension, the corporation modified the policy, following BJP’s intervention. While the earlier and much flayed caretaker clause was done away with, a surreptitious move to introduce a variant through back-door adoption seems to be afoot. Recently, by emblazoning the frontage of parks with the names of the adopters on signboards, the corporation appears to lay the ground for this shift. This time around, agreements are subject to RTI, which should bring some degree of auditing. Lip-service is paid to the priority given to local residents’ associations and accredited sports federations; the latter cover a multitude of sins under the rubric of “sports”, like the Otters Club on the Bandra seashore.

Under a complicated system of marks, applicants will be assigned weightage, depending on their experience, proven track record and financial clout.  Parties, with a turnover of up to Rs5 crore, will be given preference. This virtually rules out any residents’ association or NGOs. For instance, the Triratna Prerna Trust in Santacruz, joint winner of the Deutsche Bank-London School of Economics Urban Age award in 2007, is running from pillar post to adopt a 400-sq metre plot, to provide a gymnasium for all classes.

Activists fear that the new policy may favour corporates like Reliance Industries which has built a 4-G-enabled “Jio Garden” over 13,000 sq metres in the new central business district of Bandra Kurla with underground parking, in collaboration with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. It has a sophisticated underground system over two levels which can accommodate 2,000 cars, but is this what Mumbai needs by way of open recreation space? On the contrary, one can argue that the underground car park contradicts the green image that which it seeks to project.

The heart of the matter is to see what a congested, construction-crazy megapolis like Mumbai needs by way of recreation. Not gymkhanas and clubhouses, Mumbai requires simple open grounds to be used by children and adults alike, all hours of the day, free or at a minimal fee. Greater Mumbai now has only 1.24 sq metres of open space per person, which, surely, is the lowest in a mega city with over 10 million people. Central government town planning norms specify 10-12 sq metres per person.

By contrast, Tokyo has 4 sq metres per inhabitant, New York 26 — thanks mainly to Central Park — and London 32. In London, every other precinct has its own little garden, which makes it far more people-friendly than other megapolises. In Mumbai, gardens, parks, playgrounds and recreation grounds occupy only 13.70 sq km of the 483 sq km of the city.

The NGO Nagar has pointed out that the corporation would only need to spend Rs108 crore a year to maintain all the 1,068 open plots it has out of its Rs200 crore budget for this. It already does a good job in a few gardens like Kamala Nehru on Malabar Hill. However, nothing prevents it from turning to NGOs and trusts, such as have been managing the Oval Maidan and Horniman Circle, and funding them in a transparent manner. Instead of privatizing public space, Mumbai should ensure that the public has open access to it.

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