Many green lungs in the city — a rare commodity in a congested Metro like Mumbai with a population of 1.2 crore — are lying unkempt, unprotected and unused, as the Shiv Sena-BJP-run civic administration has been stalling a vital policy for open spaces for the past seven years. The reason? This policy could prove costly for some politicians who have turned some of these public spaces into swanky private clubs and gymnasiums under a previous regulation that was later put on hold, say Manasi Phadke and Sharvari Patwa
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has on numerous occasions drafted and re-drafted a policy to protect and maintain the city’s open spaces by diluting some of the control given to private trusts that were allotted open spaces for maintenance. However, political representatives have been consistently rejecting these drafts, mainly on the grounds that the entity that is allotted the open plot for maintenance should have complete control over it.
The controversial caretaker and adoption policy to allow handover and maintenance of public open spaces to private trusts was stayed in 2007 by the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
The civic body had originally designed two policies for the city’s open spaces – the adoption policy and the caretaker policy. Under the adoption policy, an open space could be handed over to a local citizens group or a non-government organization for a period of five years on a deposit of Rs 25,000. Only a 10×10 feet security enclosure could be constructed on the plot, under this scheme.
The other policy, Caretaker, was the controversial one wherein a caretaker is given the land on a minimum 33-year lease and allowed to construct on 25 per cent of the total area if a plot is between 5,000 sq ft and 15,000 sq ft. For larger grounds, 33 per cent of the land could be used for building. In return, the caretaker was expected to maintain the remaining part of the ground for public use and charge Rs 2 to Rs 5 for use.
The policy was applicable to all plots, grounds, gymkhanas, gymnasiums, swimming pools, sports clubs and gardens that were mostly allotted to private parties including politicians or their organisations from 1998 to 2001. Following vociferous protests by activists and residents in several of the city’s pockets, the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2008 ordered a stay on this ‘caretaker adoption policy’ of the BMC. Clubs built under the caretaker policy include Vihar Sports Complex Borivali, MIG Club Bandra, Matoshree Club Jogeshwari, Mandapeshwar Club Borivali, Wellington Club Santacruz, Ronson Foundation Juhu, Prabodhankar Thackeray Complex Vile Parle, Prabodhankar Krida Bhavan Goregaon.
These trusts, some of which are said to have the backing of political big-wigs such as Shiv Sena MLA Ravindra Waikar, Shiv Sena MLA Vinod Ghosalkar and MLA Gopal Shetty, run clubs and gymnasiums wherein entry is restricted only to club members, while public can access some of the open space, albeit in restricted timings.
NUMEROUS DRAFTS PUT ON HOLD
In the new amended draft policy in 2010, BMC proposed that 25 per cent of the plot be given to a private trust on caretaker basis while the remaining 75 per cent be with the BMC. This, senior civic officials point out was the main point of contention between the political wing and the civic administration.
“Unlike earlier, when the trusts had control over the full open plot, in the new policy, the BMC had mandated that the private trusts could keep the 25 per cent of the plot with them, while for the remaining 75 per cent, they should pay the upkeep and maintenance charges thereby restricting control of such trusts to a smaller part of plot,” said a senior civic official.
BJP corporator and member of Improvement committee Dnyanmurti Sharma, admitted, “The most crucial demand is that the new policy should not touch the existing caretaker plots. One cannot expect that those trust running these plots should return the majority part of the plot meant for public use after spending so much on the plot”.
The amended policy first put up before the civic body’s improvement committee in 2011 for approval has been sent back at least four times for modifications.
Ravindra Waikar, who runs the Matoshree club at Jogeshwari, said, “We also have an issue with a clause of the new draft that asks the trusts in charge of open spaces under the old caretaker policy to pay Rs 300 per square feet for 66 percent of the total plot area. We are already spending on maintaining the open space so why should we pay?”
The new policy was also to apply to existing trusts under caretaker policy after their leases expire. “The fact that these trusts would have to give up control of the full plot and keep it open for general public has been a sore point with corporators and MLAs,” said the civic official adding that in most of these clubs entry for general public is only on paper.
Few crucial suggestions in the draft opposed by Shiv Sena and BJP corporators in the improvement committee include a proposal to auction the open spaces to the highest bidder and also give first right of maintaining open spaces to local resident groups.
“In the original policy, the appointment of trusts to maintain these open spaces was done randomly. Usually politicians running trusts and NGOs would apply and be appointed as caretakers. Under the new proposed draft we suggested that the caretakers be called based on advertisements and keep it open for all groups including NGOs, resident associations, corporate houses and politicians”.
The BMC’s website mentions that its gardens department maintains 402 parks and gardens and over 353 recreation spaces. As per section 63 of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, providing recreational amenities to the public is a “discretionary” duty of the civic body. Citing this clause and a paucity of funds, the civic administration has been seeking partnerships from private trusts to maintain open spaces.
Social activist from Save Open Spaces, umbrella organisation of more than 30 civic groups Ashoke Pandit points out that caretaker and adoption policies were being used to grab land banks. This is an easy way to make huge money and both politicians and builders would ensure that once open spaces are given to them for maintenance they would build clubs for the rich and restrict access for the rest of citizens”.
While they were supposed to build and develop on 33 per cent of the land, they would also try to ensure that public access is restricted on the remaining portion of land,” said Pandit.
According to the city’s development plan, there are 3,246 existing and proposed open spaces in the city, accounting for about 6 percent of the city’s total land. However, a study that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) had commissioned through experts shows that about 26 percent of them are occupied by structures and another 23 percent are lying vacant and are not in use. So, while per capita open space as per the development plan should be 2.48 square metres, in reality it is much lower.
Globally while New York City has free space of 7.20 sq m/ person, London has 4.8 sq m per person and Shanghai 9.16 sq m/person, Mumbai has free space less than one square metres per person. This is despite the fact that the civic administration has added promenades, gymkhanas, forests and beaches as open spaces.
Rais Shaikh, Samajwadi Party Corporator says, introducing the caretaker policy is like opening a pandora’s box. “There is immense political pressure from the top rung in the Shiv Sena to maintain the stay in the caretaker policy. Under the policy, most of the clubs run by politicians have constructed posh clubs in the part of the plot allotted to them, while entry in the rest of the plot meant for common public is also restricted”.
“Most of these trusts usually undertake various activities in the remaining plot meant for public use also. In some cases, those plots are used to rent out for parties and functions in nexus with civic officials,” said Shaikh.
OPEN SPACES IN DEVELOPMENT PLAN, BUT MANY NOT OPEN FOR PUBLIC
The MMRDA-commissioned study had found that of the 3,246 reserved sites for open spaces, less than 40 percent are actually accessible to the public. Rest are either lying vacant and not in use, or they are occupied by structures including slums, or they are in the premises of private clubs and are accessible to a limited population.
According to the city’s development plan for 1991 to 2010, there are 3,246 existing and proposed open spaces spread across 2,968 hectares. Of these 1,275 are playgrounds, 1,258 are recreational grounds, 514 sites are reserved for gardens, 44 as green belts and another 155 as stadiums, hill slopes, tanks and so on.
The study was conducted by the MMR Environment Improvement Society with two consultants on board, namely Mumbai’s Adarkar Associates and Ahmedabad’s HCP-Design Project Management. The report, published in 2012, created a detailed inventory of all open spaces in the city.
A total of 756 sites, about 23 percent, reserved for development of open spaces are lying vacant, but not in use and in a condition of disarray. Of these, a majority of them?365 sites?are in the congested western suburbs, according to the study. While many are owned by the BMC or other government agencies, some are also privately-owned or stuck in litigation.
Likewise, the study shows that another 899 sites are covered by either buildings or slums with 421 of the sites being in the western suburbs, 254 in the island city and 224 in the western suburbs.
Another 406 sites have entry restrictions have entry restrictions as they fall in the premises of private clubs or institutions, and thus are not available for public use.
Additional Municipal Commissioner S V R Srinivas said, “The new policy will ensure access of locally available open spaces to the general public, especially as land supply is limited in the city. One also needs to rethink about the caretaker policy as it restricts entry of the common public.”
As per the open spaces reservations in the development plan with 2,968 hectares of open space, Mumbai has per capita open space of 2.48 square metres. However, in reality this figure dwindles to 0.88 square metres with several of these open spaces built upon, not in use, or having restricted entry.
The MMRDA study found that of the 24 administrative wards in Mumbai, 18 wards have per capita open space that is developed, in use, and accessible to the public, of less than one hectare. Seven of these have per capita open space of less than half a hectare, the worst being H East (Bandra East, Khar East and Santacruz East) with per capita open space of 0.15 hectares, followed by C ward (Chira Bazaar, Masjid, Girgaum, Kalbadevi) with 0.16 hectares and M-East (Chembur, Govandi and Mankhurd) with 0.22.
Nayana Kathpalia, trustee, NAGAR, a city-based NGO working for open spaces in the city, said, “In the absence of a proper policy for the last seven years, arbitrary rules have come in force for parks and gardens in different wards across Mumbai. It is up to the discretion of the ward officers and dependent on their mood to define what activities are allowed in these open spaces and which are not. Without a policy, they cannot be questioned.”
The survey for the development plan of 1991-2010 was conducted in 1981. However, since then there was a lot of real estate development and much land was also lost to encroachments. Thus, many of the open space reservations in the development plan were already built upon. Besides, the development plan also included many proposed sites that could be developed into open spaces.
“During the making of the development plan, in order to increase the ratio of per capita open space, open space reservations were marked on plots which already had existing buildings that were supposed to have a short life expectancy. Some reservations were marked on plots that were occupied by slums. Most of these plots are still occupied by the same structures,” the study said, adding some of these structures over a course of time have also been renovated into rented commercial outlets.
PROBLEMS WITH OPEN SPACES
Desai Maidan, Mahim
Roughly 25 percent of the entire area allocated as open space as per the city’s development plan is covered by slums and buildings, largely by the former.
One such example is the Desai Maidan at Mahim. While a third of the plot is developed and in use as a playground, the other part is occupied by a baithi chawl known as the Naseerwanji Wadi Chawl for more than 20 years now. With the plot not in use as a playground or a recreational space, the BMC, which is supposed to be the guardian of the plot, has also encroached on it by building a makeshift structure and dumping garbage on the plot.
Meena Desai, former corporator for the area, said, “I had aggressively pursued that issue. I had also filed Right to Information requests that revealed that the BMC was actually planning redevelop the chawl and settle the tenants on the same plot, irrespective of the fact that it is reserved for a playground.” Desai, who belongs to the Congress party, said that the slum redevelopment scheme planned for the plot has not gone through yet owing to pressure from local activists and her office. “Over the years there have also been illegal additions to the chawl. However, considering that the residents of the chawl have been living there for many years now, I had suggested that they be rehabilitated as project-affected people somewhere else in Mahim and the plot be developed for the purpose it has been reserved. This is practically the only open space in Mahim,” she said.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Virendra Tandel, the current corporator for the area located in the G north ward, said, “I had taken up this issue, but there has been no action yet”.
SK Patil Udyan, Charni Road
Similarly, over the years some open spaces in the city have shrunk in size due to works related to boosting the physical infrastructure of the city.
SK Patil Udyan at Charni road is one such case. The garden is the only open space in C Ward, which has a very poor per capita availability of open space accessible to public, as the others are inside gymkhanas or institutions and are not open for all.
The garden has been in a bad condition for years. A large part of the garden was closed in 2007 for tunnelling work of the water department that was completed in 2012. However, the BMC is yet to refurbish the garden and open it for public use.
Vijay Hire, deputy superintendent of gardens, said, “Once refurbished the garden would be smaller than it was earlier as there is some tunnel shaft of the water supply department that is occupying some space. It has been done as per plans approved by senior officials from BMC and could not be helped as water supply is also important.”.
“Funding was slightly a problem in renovating the garden and that caused a delay. Now that has been resolved. The gardens cell has floated tenders and given the work order. We will be doing it phase wise and spending Rs 3 crore roughly,” Hire said.
Gandhi Maidan, Kurla
While many open spaces have fallen prey to encroachments, this is a story of how resident activism ensured that a playground?a rare entity in the extremely congested suburb of Kurla West?was freed of encroachments and restored to its original purpose.
The playground measuring 2,505 square metres had hosted Indira Gandhi’s rally during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement in 1960, and had served as a dais for performances of Marathi actor Dada Kondke a few times. However, post 1970, hutments started cropping up on the ground.
With the BMC having failed to take any action, members of the Senior Citizens Group of Kurla West took it upon themselves to get the open space freed and make it available as a playground once again.
It took them 14 years and repeated visits to the deputy collector’s office, the BMC ward office and several rounds of the court. A few times, the BMC would partly clear the encroachments, but they would resurface. Then finally, in December, following a Bombay High Court order, the BMC cleared all, but a few, encroachments, opening up most of the maidan. To celebrate, the residents organised a sports and cultural festival earlier this year on the playground for the community.