Mumbai may lose its open spaces

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Thursday 30 November 2006

Restricted entry: Private play (Credit: Surya Sen)a discreet letter, che/gen-318/dp/gen, dated October 16, 2006, from the commissioner of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (mcgm) was recently discussed during its improvements committee meeting. Its subject line has worried urban planners and activists "Policy guidelines for allowing development of lands reserved for public purposes of gymnasium, gymkhana club, stadium, swimming pool, recreation ground (rg) and play ground (pg)."

Implementation of these guidelines will mean that Mumbai's reserved open public spaces will be handed over to private organisations/corporate bodies for development and maintenance. This will mean that they will get construction rights over 25 per cent of the total space leased to them. The rest shall be used for "disciplined" public use with "restricted hours" of entry.The letter also says, "...such plots [reserved for recreation] may be developed by mcgm or entrusted on adoption basis to public spirited organisations ... In case there is no response then a decision may be taken to entrust the plots to other organisations on a caretaker basis...".

Activists demand that this policy, soon to be notified, be scrapped. The state urban development department, suggesting minor modifications, gave a go-ahead to the policy on September 2. "As against the open space norm of 1.6 hectare (ha) per 1,000 people, Mumbai barely has 0.006 ha. This move will turn Mumbai into a city of schizophrenics," says Nayana Kathpalia of Mumbai-based Citispace, a citizens' forum for protection of public spaces. "It is unfortunate that a body expected to protect the city's open spaces is out to destroy them. These will now be legally encroached upon for private clubbing purposes," rues Jamsheed Kanga, former mcgm commissioner.
Adoption vs caretaker The mcgm'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 mcgm. Using this clause, it has been seeking public-private partnership in developing and maintaining the spaces.

Towards this, mcgm follows two policies -- adoption policy and caretaker policy. The latter has always been a bone of contention. "Under the adoption policy, the recreational spaces are leased to trusts/ngos for a period of five years. Construction is not allowed, except 10/10 feet watchman-chowky-cum-store rooms. As against this, in the caretaker policy, open spaces are leased to private organisations/corporate bodies for a minimum of 33 years. The corporate sector can also construct on 25 per cent of the total open space. Due to internal differences, mcgm had discontinued the policy a few years back, but the October 16 letter exposes how this policy is again being pushed," says Kathpalia.

Activists claim that the adoption policy is good enough to manage the spaces. For instance, the 9 ha (90,000 sq m) Oval Maidan in south Mumbai is being successfully maintained under this. "mcgm does not want the adoption policy to succeed. Terms and conditions of the adoption policy are convoluted. On their request we even framed comprehensive terms and conditions, to be met with a deafening silence. And, now, suddenly a new policy," says Meher Rafaat of Citispace.

"In the past too, mcgm has leased out open spaces to various organisations, which have made these completely inaccessible to the general public. For instance, the Mumbai Police Gymkhana ground is fenced on all sides with a guard at the gate. Similarly, mig Cricket Club ground in Bandra has become private property," says Sudhir Badami, an urban planning expert. Citizens have filed petitions against some projects, such as Matoshree Arts and Sports Club in Andheri (East), and Prabodhankar Thackery Sports Complex and Olympic Swimming Pool in Vile Parle (East).

mcgm maintains that poor response towards adoption policy and "restriction of funds" is the reason for promoting the caretaker policy. Recent reports say that mcgm plans to spend Rs 1.83 crore to develop amusement facilities on a ground in Mayor Dattaram Dalvi's backyard. Down To Earth tried contacting P A Naringrekar, superintendent of gardens, mcgm, to clarify these issues. He was unavailable for comment. Others in the gardens department of mcgm refused to speak on the matter. The countdown for Mumbai's open public spaces, it seems, has begun.

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