The Slum Rehabilitation Authority’s controversial proposal to include the Maharashtra Nature Park (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 is now facing stiff resistance even within the government.
The state-run Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), under which the nature park falls, is the latest to red flag the contentious move. It has joined the conservationists in opposing the plan. “The park is a biodiversity hot spot. It just cannot be merged with a slum redevelopment project,” MMRDA commissioner U P S Madan told The Indian Express on Wednesday.
To ensure that the proposal does not move ahead, the MMRDA has even decided to formally record its objection, confirmed Madan. Incidentally, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis heads both the agencies. When contacted for his stance on the controversy, Fadnavis said he would “check and get back”.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra’s Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, too, has got involved in the controversy. Responding to reports that a portion of MNP was notified as a forest in 1991, Mungantiwar told The Indian Express that he has written to the MMRDA for handover of the land that had been notified as forest to the forest department.
“Rules say that the lands notified as forest must be handed over to the forest department. I’ve also sought a detailed report from the forest secretary in this regard,” Mungantiwar said. In 2015, the MMRDA’s own plans 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.
Back then, the MMRDA 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 the environmentalists had fiercely objected to the MMRDA’s plan too. Madan, however, maintained that the two plans had nothing in common. Our proposal was for beautification and value addition of the nature park, he said. “It was to be taken up without altering the nature and character of the park,” he said.
On March 19, The Indian Express was the first to highlight the SRA’s proposal to include the nature park in the Dharavi redevelopment plan, which is spread over 16.8 hectares, in the development of Sector 5 of the Dharavi project, which involves 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 is the planning authority for the redevelopment project. The state government has already approved the redevelopment of Sector 5.
Srinivas told The Indian Express, “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 redevelopment project.” He further claimed that the “park would be conserved even after it is included in the area to be redeveloped and that there was no plan to build or alter the character of MNP.”
But conservationists and environmentalists have raised a stink over the move. Apart from them, BJP’s alliance partner, the Shiv Sena too has joined in opposition. On Tuesday, the Shiv Sena’s legislative wing wrote to Fadnavis seeking an unconditional rollback of the move. “We won’t allow the inclusion of the nature park in the Dharavi redevelopment project under any circumstances,” said Shiv Sena’s senior minister Subhash Desai. On Wednesday, Yuva Sena president and Shiv Sena’s heir apparent Aaditya Thackeray paid a visit to MNP, along with some environmentalists and party leaders, where he reiterated his party’s “strong opposition” to the proposal once again.
The land on which the MNP stands was used as a dumpyard 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 and school students visit the park each year. Following the proposed inclusion of the MNP, the total land earmarked for the Dharavi redevelopment project would increase from 155 hectares to 172 hectares, confirmed officials. The government has allowed a buildable area of four times the gross plot area to push the much-delayed redevelopment project under the public private partnership model.
Urban planners and architects are apprehending 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, they claimed, may 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.
Others have questioned how a developed nature park, bereft of any slum structures, can be included in the slum redevelopment area while contending that this would lead to a serious depletion of public open spaces in Mumbai.