The Battle to Preserve Mumbai’s Open Spaces

Space is the most priced commodity in Mumbai and open spaces are its most treasured luxury. But the city’s open spaces may be under threat thanks to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which passed its controversial open spaces (adoption) policy last week. Activists and citizen groups claim the new policy will lead to the city open spaces shrinking even further.

What is the controversy all about?
The BMC’s garden department is charged with looking after the city’s 1068 open spaces including playgrounds and recreational grounds. But after the Development Control Regulations (DCR) of 1991 was passed, the agency claimed it did not have the funds to do this anymore and came up with the adoption and caretaker policy, which would partner with private organisation. Under the adoption clause, private individuals were allowed to look after the plots but prohibited from any kind of major construction activity. On the other hand, the caretaker clause allowed plots to be leased out to private parties with construction of clubs, gyms, halls etc. permitted on 15% of the total area of the plot.

While the plan may have sounded good on paper, the policy and especially the caretaker clause saw widespread misuse. Many individuals and organizations started charging for access to these public spaces, or maintained it as elite clubs that restricted entry to the general public. Following several complaints, the government placed the policy on hold in 2007 but it made no provisions to take back the plots that were given away.

Why is this making news again?
Activists claim that the new policy that the BMC has passed has not learnt from past mistakes. In fact, they say it creates a loophole for applicants who have applied before December 31st, 2014. If these applicants can prove that they have spent Rs. 3 crore on the adopted plot, they can be upgraded to caretaker status, the very clause which saw most of the open spaces misused in the past. “There are about 12 plots which are currently given on adoption that have crossed the Rs 3-crore mark. The caretaker policy is so structured as to always be preferred over an adoption policy as it is clearly profit driven. One cannot rule out the possibility that this becomes a precedent for such adoption to caretaker conversions in the future”, points out a report from the Observer Research (ORF), a think-tank that has studied the policy extensively.

Critics also claim that the BMC’s policy is essentially create third-party rights on what is a public land. “In our country, possession is de facto ownership. Once someone spends money on a certain thing they tend to think they have some kinds of rights on it”, points out Shailesh Gandhi, a public-interest activist.

So what’s the solution?
Citizen groups want these open places to be taken back and maintained by the BMC. But what about the agency’s claims that it does not have the money? “The BMC has funds of Rs. 36 lakh per plot. This makes it quite clear that BMC is more than capable of providing high-quality and consistent security, maintenance and upkeep of all such properties”, points out Gautam Kirtane, research fellow at the ORF. Worsening the matter is the fact that the BMC is the richest civic body in the country, with a budget of over Rs 33,000 crores, most of which remains unspent every year. Open space activists are urging the BMC to follow the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which has managed to successfully maintain open spaces in the capital city. “Open spaces are very vital for city’s happiness index. If we don’t preserve them now, this city will fair badly on its happiness quotient”, claims Sandeep Deshpande, part of the opposition in the BMC.

Thanks to the flak the new policy is facing, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has placed it on hold. But there is no assurance that the policy will be scrapped. Considering the state of Mumbai’s open spaces, it is high-time the government implements an effective policy that involves all stakeholders or otherwise it may be too late.

Ashwini Priolker, Reporter, NDTV


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