For a city of 20 million people and endless vistas of concrete high rise, Mumbai holds some surprises. One of them is the 103 sq kms Protected Area (under the Wildlife Protection Act) known as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Contiguous to it at the southern end is the 16 sq km wooded Aarey Colony, a part of which has now been declared a reserved forest.
These are well known and much loved public spaces fiercely protected by citizens, but are not (yet) counted in Mumbai’s ratio of population to public space, which is among the worst in the world – a measly 1.2 sq mts per capita. The ideal is 4 sq mts.
In the face of relentless attempts to dilute the ratio even further, Mumbai residents have fought bravely for the development and maintenance of other green spaces too, from tiny patches of a couple of hundred sq mts, to the maintenance of large neighbourhood parks and gardens.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s “Gardens and Trees Department” has a list of 1068 “recreational grounds”, “playgrounds” and “open spaces”.
According to the department head, Superintendent Jitendra Pardesi, the largest among them is the 52 acre Rani Bagh, formally known as Jijamata Udyan in which the 160 year old Mumbai zoo is located – Pardesi’s office too is in one corner of this vast green space in Byculla — and the smallest is 150sq mts in Thakurdwar.
“BMC’s gardens are a service that at least one or two persons in every family avails of – and it’s a 100 per cent free service,” Pardesi said.
This column is a tour of Mumbai through some of these neighbourhood gardens, parks and grounds which citizens have fought for and guard jealously. The series kicks off with Bhakti Park Udyan.
Bhakti Park in the Wadala-Chembur area should be a landmark of the eastern suburbs of Mumbai. But so well concealed is this green gem that even locally, it is described as “near Imax Theatre”.
Ringed by several high rise buildings on one side, the 25 acre open space was developed into a public park and playground by a builder 20 years ago in an arrangement with the BMC.
“Public space”, wrote M N Buch, the well known urban planner, in “Public Spaces – Bombay”, a volume of essays published by the Urban Design Research Institute, “is the last frontier to defend which becomes the duty of every citizen”.
Bhakti Park is an example of how vigilant citizens prevented the public space from being taken over for private use by a developer who had been entrusted with it under BMC’s “adoption scheme”.
Seven years ago, after reports that the developer had locked up some parts of the garden for private use, was charging an entry fee of Rs 20 for public access to another portion, and had turned the playground into a private “elite” cricket academy, the Maharashtra Lok Ayukta suo motu ordered the BMC to take the land back from the developer for violating the terms of the arrangement. The developer’s justification was that the public space was attracting “couples” and “youngsters”. It also offered a “terrorist threat” as an excuse.
The Lok Ayukta noted that the developer was using the open area to bump up the price of apartment blocks developed by him in the same area and was ordered to pay a hefty fine as a penalty. Currently, it is maintained by the BMC and entry into the park is free.
When it came up in 2014, the Eastern freeway bisected the park, and now the garden and the playground are on different sides of it. The garden is spread over an approximately 15-acre portion ( 58,000 sq mts) of the land, has a 2-kilometre walking track inside meandering over serendipitous twists and turns, through lawns, well-trimmed hedges of different shapes and sizes, and over 3,000 trees, all of them indigenous species. The remaining 40,000 sq mts (9,800 sq mts = 1 acre) has the playground.
According to Pardesi, the park has a “nakshatra” theme with trees that are believed, by those who are astrologically inclined, to represent 27 different constellations and 12 signs of the zodiac. For this reason, the garden has a series of cupolas located under particular trees, designed so that people of particular “nakshatra” could sit and imbibe the vibes from the corresponding tree.
The park was pelting down with rain on the day that The Indian Express visited last week, and it was empty. But according to Sudharshan Avare, Deputy Superintendent of the Gardens & Trees department in BMC ‘M’ ward and under whose direct supervision the park is, it attracts thousands of people. Avare said that 15 security guards man the park in shifts, and 15 gardener’s and 30 sweepers toil to maintain for the upkeep of the garden.
“The park has more than 3270 trees, and recently we planted 36,000 trees by miyawaki method two years ago,” Avare said. The Japanese style miyawaki patch is at one end of the park.