A National Law University, offices of various tribunals, including the State Human Rights Commission and the Motor Vehicles Tribunal, as well as a Metro rail car shed are set to come up over a 500-acre sprawl that was marked as a ‘natural area’ (NA) and ‘no development zone’ (NDZ) when Mumbai’s new Development Plan (DP) draft was first published.
In 2016, when the draft DP was first placed before citizens, the Mumbai municipality had categorised a major portion of the same land parcel in Goregaon as an ecologically sensitive belt. No construction activity was permitted on it except a proposed 25-metre-wide coastal road. The remaining portion was also categorised as an NDZ affected by the coastal regulation zone.
In August 2017, after public suggestions and objections to the new plan were reviewed, the civic body had removed the road reservation too from the first portion, marking it as NA or a no-construction zone. A label of Special Planning Authority (SPA), meanwhile, was put on the NDZ area.
The city’s new DP classifies mangroves, mudflats, ecologically vital salt pans and hills, etc as NA, where construction activity remains barred. The Goregaon site in question has dense mangrove vegetation on either side of the land where the construction is to take place.
Yet, the state government has proposed declassification of the land from the NA category. In a move that will unlock the land for construction, the CM-led Urban Development (UD) department has now reserved a bulk of the land for the National Law University and other courts (human rights courts, family courts, Motor Vehicle Tribunal, etc). Clearing decks for more construction activity on the land, it has also proposed a Metro rail car shed and an 18-metre road on it. In fact, sources said a proposal for a wider road is under consideration.
According to sources, about 98 hectare has been reserved for the university and other courts and another 221 hectare for the car shed. In fact, senior government sources confirmed that the contentious new land-use reservations have been proposed on a total of about 350 acres of the land.
The land parcel is privately owned by two firms, Beeline Impex (Private) Limited and Pearl Coschem Private Limited, which is affiliated to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Group, one of the largest private landowners in the commercial capital.
Under the accommodation reservation principle, a private land owner in Mumbai can avail the entire development potential of a reserved land upon developing the said amenity for which the land is reserved. Additionally, the city’s new DP has allowed additional buildable space, over and above the permissible floor space index (FSI), as incentive in lieu of the buildable area utilised for developing the reservation.
In other words, the land was unbuildable when classified as NA and NDZ. The new reservations proposed on the land enable the private owner to avail more than the full FSI that would be permissible on any other unreserved plot.
Incidentally, the landowners have entered into consent terms with real estate conglomerate – the Sahara India Commercial Corporation (SICC) – transferring about 106 acre of the land.
When contacted, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said, “The Bombay High Court, while hearing a petition, had directed the state government to provide land for the law university. Some NDZ lands were shortlisted for the same. The (infrastructure) committee of the HC visited this land and found it suitable, after which the reservation was proposed.” Just as his department has proposed the buildable reservation even on the NA portion, Fadnavis said that only the portion tagged as NDZ will be utilised for construction.
The Opposition in Maharashtra has already red-flagged the issue. The Congress’s Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil has accused Fadnavis’s office of “passing undue benefits to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Group”, alleging that the latter “stood to make a windfall of Rs 80,000 crore”. The Chief Minister’s Office has refuted the allegations. Contending that the land in question was a mangrove land, Vikhe-Patil said, “This is clearly a no development zone. Yet the government has now unlocked it.” On January 9, Vikhe-Patil, in a letter to Fadnavis, demanded a high-level probe into the matter. The state’s town planning wing, meanwhile, has said the land is situated in the eco-sensitive coastal regulation zone (CRZ).
Fadnavis, however, contended that Mumbai’s new coastal zone management plan, which was recently finalised by the Union Environment Ministry, had classified the land as not affected by the CRZ regulations. A senior official, meanwhile, said the land holder had also submitted a report by the government’s mangrove cell stating that the land is “clear of mangroves”.
Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Group’s director Madhusudan Vakharia, who also heads the two group companies, when contacted, said, “There is no substance in the allegations. Mangroves is an illusion on the part of some people who have carried on a tirade since 2002. There is no substance in the charge of mangrove destruction.” While over 14,024 hectare in Mumbai was hitherto marked as NDZ to act as a buffer against enhanced construction activity, the new DP – in a bid to push social housing and open spaces – has proposed unlocking of about 2,300 hectare of these. These have been newly classified as ‘Special Development Zones (SDZs).’ While Fadnavis said that the Goregaon parcel was also one such development land, it has not been shown as an SDZ on DP sheets. “We had invited suggestions and objections over the move. Now it’s pending (for final sanction) with the government.
An appropriate decision will be taken in accordance with law,” added Fadnavis.
Vakharia, meanwhile, contended that the “designation of the natural area (NA) had been put surreptitiously when the development plan was submitted to the government after the suggestions and objections had been received”.
Although a state government notification in this regard shows that the NA reservation on a portion of the plot had existed when the DP was first placed before citizens. “The land was all along shown as a No development zone (NDZ),” Vakharia said. He added that in 2004 itself the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) had issued a communication to the Union Environment Ministry stating that there was an absence of mangroves on the plot.
In 1995, the land owners had put up a proposal for the development of a golf course, a club house, and bungalows on the plot. While an initial building permission was also issued for the development, the ministry had suspended the environmental clearance in this regard after objections were raised by green activists.
Last March, while replying to a discussion over the new DP, Fadnavis informed members of the state legislative assembly that his government would not compromise on reserved open spaces.