A small battle has been won in the fight to preserve the Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP) in Mumbai. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has told The Indian Express that the nature park area will be permanently tagged as a “natural area” where construction won’t be permitted. “It will be preserved as a natural area and not a single dilution would be permitted in its nature and form,” Fadnavis said on Thursday.
The Chief Minister’s assurance comes in light of a public outcry over the Maharashtra Slum Rehabilitation Authority’s controversial proposal to include the MNP, 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.
On March 19, The Indian Express had highlighted the SRA’s proposal to include the nature park, which is spread over 16.86 hectare, in the development of Sector 5 of the Dharavi project, which involves the resettlement of nearly 60,000 slum structures in planned habitats under five planning sectors. S V R Srinivas, CEO and Officer on Special Duty, Dharavi Redevelopment Project, SRA, has issued a notification in this regard on March 5 inviting suggestions and objections from the public. The SRA, which is headed by Fadnavis himself, is the special planning authority (SPA) for the redevelopment project. The stage government has already approved the redevelopment of Sector 5.
Over the past four days, The Indian Express has published a series of stories highlighting the public opposition to the project and how a rift within the government had widened over the move, with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, also headed by the Chief Minister, under which the park falls, and the state’s forest department also objecting to the move. Incidentally, BJP’s alliance partner, the Shiv Sena, too, has joined the conservationists in raising a stink over the contentious move.
The growing opposition to the move also prompted Fadnavis to make a statement on the floor of the state Legislative Assembly, declaring that “no change in the character of the nature park would be permitted”. But urban planners, architects and conservationists continued to question the very reason for the inclusion of the MNP in the area earmarked for the redevelopment project.
In 2005, when the government first notified the area for the Dharavi project, the state had consciously kept the nature park in the “excluded portion” of the notified area, ensuring it was not included in the planning proposals for the Dharavi redevelopment plan.
“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 purposes, it has now been included as part of the planning proposals. But no change in its nature will be allowed. No construction would be permitted. And this will be mentioned specifically in the final notification,” Fadnavis told The Indian Express. Earlier, Srinivas had adopted the same position.
But urban planner Sulakshana Mahajan said, “No specific reason for the inclusion was mentioned in the SRA’s notification. The motive for the inclusion of such area already under specific use with slum redevelopment area does not appear to be genuine and smell of an ulterior motive.”
She further apprehended that the inclusion of the area within the nature park may help in augmenting the area under open space within the area earmarked for slum development. This, she claimed, may allow the eventual developer to dilute the compulsory recreational ground and open space requirements within the layout. This, in turn, would result in increasing the building footprint and the construction density in the locality, she claimed.
Architect and urban designer Anil Darshetkar, meanwhile, questioned if the SPA had any power to consider and decide any extension of its notified area. He claimed that the “notification is illegal and must be immediately withdrawn.”
Some others have questioned how a developed nature park, bereft of any slum structure, can be included in the slum redevelopment area, while arguing that this would lead to depletion of public open spaces in Mumbai. When asked about the demand for the non-merger of the nature park in the area earmarked for the Dharavi redevelopment project, Fadnavis said, “I’ll look into the issue.”
Stalin D, Director, Vanashakti, an NGO fighting for environmental issues, questioned how can the nature park, which is tagged as a protected forest, can continue to remain in the custody of the MMRDA for so long. Last year, the NGO had procured documents under the Right to Information Act showing that a total area of 184.14 hectares, with parts of Mahim creek, the MNP and a few villages spread across Dharavi, Bandra and Mahim had been notified as protected forest on March 16, 1991.
An alternate plan of the MMRDA to “beautify and develop” the nature park were hit owing to the “forest” tag on the portion of the MNP. “We had written to forest officials seeking more details regarding the notified zone. We are still awaiting their response,” Madan confirmed.
In 2015, the MMRDA too had tied up with the Observer Research Foundation, a private policy think tank, for the park beautification plan, which included building of a pedestrian-cycling bridge — connecting Bandra-Kurla-Complex with the nature park — a water-front promenade all along a one and a half kilometre stretch of the adjoining Mithi river, a multi-storey parking lot, reconstruction of the office building and other existing built-up space inside the nature park, a separate play area for children, a bird walk and a butterfly park. But even this was met with stiff resistance.
On Wednesday, Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar had got involved in the controversy. On the basis of reports that a portion of the MNP was a protected forest, Mungantiwar said that he had written to the MMRDA for immediately turning over the land that had been notified as forest to his department as mandated by rules. But Stalin D alleged that the forest department officials were under pressure not to initiate action in this regard.