Current General Studies Magazine: "Maximum City, Minimum Space" January 2016

Current General Studies Magazine (January 2016)

General Studies - III "Geography Based Article" (Maximum City, Minimum Space)

The demand to convert the Mahalaxmi Race Course into Mumbai’s Central Park brings out the city’s strained relationship with space: there is too little of it, and too many who want to control it

In Mumbai, the battle for public open spaces is being fought against closed minds. A city starved of open recreational spaces is being subjected to another round of controversy following the Shiv Sena’s heir apparent, Aaditya Thackeray, tweeting about how his party wants the 226-acre Mahalaxmi Race Course to be converted into what he calls The Mumbai Park, to be built on the lines of Central Park in New York. It is a seemingly noble suggestion, but scratch the veneer and it could well be a municipal corporation-controlled entertainment zone.

Another battle is being fought simultaneously between citizens’ groups and the city’s municipal corporation that has released a draft plan couched in jargon and bureaucratese but intended to hand over several open spaces in Mumbai to private developers. Activists were so enraged that they forced the State Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to stop the proposal from being passed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). It has been put on hold for the time being, but there is no guarantee that it won’t be passed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after all, is an ally of the Shiv Sena in both the BMC as well as the State government.

Mr. Fadnavis is battling Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, too, on the open spaces policy. On Sunday, Mr. Thackeray launched a few verbal volleys into the State government’s court for what he called a “flip-flop” by the BJP on the issue. The Nationalist Congress Party, on the other hand, has begun a signature campaign against the policy. “The policy is faulty,” the party’s city president, Sachin Ahir, said. “We want a review by the State government.”

Open spaces in Mumbai

That Mumbai has few open spaces is not secret, but the data are stark. Mumbai is spread across approximately 483 sq. km, but gardens and parks account for only 0.52 per cent of this area. Playgrounds make up for 0.83 per cent, and recreational grounds measure 1.62 per cent of the total area. Promenades and beaches together are 0.29 per cent of the city. If the heavily encroached Sanjay Gandhi National Park (11 per cent of the total area) is excluded, Mumbai’s open spaces for free public use account for a mere 3.26 per cent of the city’s total area. Compare this with, say, Adelaide in Australia, where more than half of the city’s area is open spaces for free public use.

In a mapping of Mumbai’s spaces by urban planning consultancy P.K. Das and Associates, 45.7 per cent of Mumbai’s remaining open space could be potentially given up for development of residential housing, and industrial and commercial use, in addition to amenities and services.

In that sense, the battle for Mahalaxmi Race Course is symbolic. The Shiv Sena says the open space will be used to build a park that will have an iconic tower, a reserved area for music concerts, an amphitheatre, an art corner, a kite-flying area, a yoga area, water games, an outdoor gym, an open-air movie theatre, restaurants, a farmers’ market, and even a rock-climbing arena. It is seemingly a reasonable plan. Activists, on the other hand, feel that in political hands, the Race Course land will be subjected to the same treatment that other open spaces have been in the city. Shiv Sena insiders also say that the primary reason the party wants quick action on the race course (whose 99-year lease ended in 2013) is to name its proposed park after the party’s founder, Bal Thackeray. Uddhav Thackeray has denied this.

While the younger Mr. Thackeray is battling the State government to make the Mahalaxmi Race Course into a BMC-regulated open space, he had openly supported the preservation of Aarey Colony, the 1,600-hectare tract of green cover that has been identified by the State government for a Metro train car shed which will be spread over 130 hectares. Aarey is home to leopards and several other species of animals, birds, and insects, and activists are fighting a long, as-yet-unsuccessful battle for it to be declared a protected zone. Even if the train depot will take over only 10 per cent of the land, it will destroy the habitat for close to 50 species, they say. Besides, thousands of trees will go on the chopping block to make way for the train car shed.

The State government has not gone back on its decision to convert the area into a train depot despite the protests. Instead, in early 2015, it appointed a panel that was headed by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) chief U.P.S. Madan when MMRDA is the nodal agency for the Metro rail construction in Mumbai. From all indications, the State government will stick to its original plan of using Aarey land.

Growth vs. green spaces

Essentially, then, Mumbai is stuck between an important public transport milestone (the third phase of the Mumbai Metro will be 33-km long and will potentially carry more than 10 lakh passengers a day between Colaba in south Mumbai and Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone in the north) and its intense desire to keep its open spaces alive. The Chief Minister’s expert panel has not yet suggested an alternative to the car shed location despite Mr. Fadnavis’s express instructions to do so when the committee was formed in March 2015.

The Metro rail project consists of four lines and is slated for completion by 2021, but that deadline seems to be increasingly out of reach. The battle for Mumbai’s green cover was inevitable, and activists say they will not stop fighting for Aarey. It was thus important that the State government had anticipated this before it went ahead with proposing Aarey. Now, the city has lost almost a year in the tendering process, and it is not any closer to finding a solution.

Aarey is important to Mumbai from a social as well as an ecological standpoint. It has always been an important “picnic spot” for thousands of families and schools for decades, and even though the car shed location is separated from these social gathering places, the ecological impact of the neighbouring areas may hurt the picnic spots too, as it will significantly reduce leopard territory, and thus impair the delicate food chain of not only Aarey but also possibly of the neighbouring Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

The politician-builder nexus

To overcome some of Mumbai’s core infrastructure issues, including its open spaces, the BMC had released a Development Plan 2034 in 2015. It was filled with so many errors that it had to be sent back to the BMC. The next development plan will only be released later this year. The faulty plan put on hold 1,600 city projects, creating a sense of panic among builders who are desperate to recover lost money. One way to do it: use the open spaces policy to reclaim land that is currently in the ownership or supervision of the BMC. It is no wonder that citizens’ groups are incensed at what they see is capitulation to the builders’ lobby.

This brings the city back to square one. Mumbai has always had a strained relationship with space; there is far too little of it, and far too many want to control it. The BMC, India’s richest municipal corporation, has, on many occasions, succumbed to the builders’ lobby; mostly because rent-seeking municipal corporators have been able to create laws that encourage corruption, with no regard for either urban planning or for creating a city that Mumbai’s residents would be proud of.

The fight for open spaces, therefore, is also about the future of the city.

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