The Maharashtra government’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) is planning to include a nature park, a portion of which is notified as a protected forest, within the area earmarked for the redevelopment of Asia’s biggest slum in Mumbai’s Dharavi. According to the SRA’s proposal, the Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP), spread over 16.86 hectares, is to be included in the project to increase the land available for redevelopment. The proposal is part of a notification issued this month by S V R Srinivas, CEO and Officer on Special Duty, Dharavi Redevelopment Project, SRA, inviting suggestions and objections from the public. The plan is to include the MNP in the development of Sector 5 of the project, which involves the resettlement of nearly 60,000 slum structures in planned habitats under five planning sectors.
The SRA is the planning authority for the project. The state government has already approved the redevelopment of Sector 5. But the park’s inclusion comes at a time when Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced that his government would not compromise on open spaces while planning Mumbai’s future development. Last week, Fadnavis had assured the state assembly that no misuse or commercialisation of open spaces would be tolerated.
With the inclusion of the MNP, the total area under the Dharavi project would increase from 155 hectares to 172 hectares. To push the redevelopment, the government has also allowed a construction right of four times the notified gross plot area. Yet, private developers have stayed away from the ambitious project, first initiated nine years ago. Official sources said the government is now hoping that the inclusion of the developed green space would present a favourable proposition — it is also weighing the option of undertaking the project on its own.
When contacted, U P S Madan, commissioner of the state-run Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), under which the nature park falls, said, “I am unaware of the development. This wasn’t brought to our notice.” Madan confirmed that a portion of the nature park was notified as a protected forest by the forest department in 1991. Construction in and around areas notified as forests is disallowed under forest conservation rules.
The land on which MNP stands was used as a dump yard till the late 1970s when environmentalists and activists joined hands with the government to transform it into a small forest. Today, thousands of environment enthusiasts visit the park each year. When contacted, SRA’s Srinivas said, “The MNP was already a part of the Dharavi-notified area. But it had earlier been excluded from being a part of the redevelopment project. For better planning, we felt that it was important to include such a large area as part of the planning proposals of the project.”
Srinivas claimed that the park would be conserved even after it is included in the area to be redeveloped. “There is no plan to build or alter the character of MNP,” he said, adding that there would not be any dilution of open space norms for the project. According to SRA officials, the agency has planned for a two-hectare additional area to serve as an extension to the MNP and an afforestation zone. But environmentalists and activists have already raised red flags.
“There is a serious issue of depletion of open spaces in Mumbai and this plan must be strongly opposed. The MNP is a declared protected forest and cannot be included in the notified area of a special planning authority. No specific reasons for this inclusion have been mentioned in the notification. Thus, the motives for inclusion do not appear to be genuine,” said Anil Darshetkar, senior architect and urban designer.
“This move must be nipped in the bud. The inclusion of the area within the nature park may help in augmenting the area under open space within the notified area. This will allow the developer to dilute compulsory recreational ground and open space requirements within the layout. This, in turn, would result in the building footprint being enhanced and the area being further densified,” said Sulakshana Mahajan, urban planner.
“Once the area is included in the SRA area, the government will be able to exercise powers to use it any manner in the name of serving a ‘public purpose’ without inviting any suggestions or objections from the public,” warned Darshetkar. Shiv Sena spokesperson Dr Manisha Kayande, who is one of the three environmentalists nominated by the government on the executive board of the Maharashtra Nature Park Society, described the proposal as “absurd”. “How can an area that is marked as a forest be shown as a slum? There aren’t any slum structures on the plot either. We will oppose it tooth and nail,” said Kayande.