Weekends are not about lazing at home for Rina Chawla, 37, a banker-turned-homemaker. She plans meticulously so that she and her husband can take their two daughters out to parks and they don’t spend their time in front of television or in malls.
Residents of upmarket Lokhandwala Complex in Kandivli, the Chawlas “hunt” for green spaces for Mehr, 7, and Nimrat, 3.
They are a part of a growing community of Mumbaiites who go out of their way for a regular dose of fresh air and green spaces in a city starved of them. “In our area, we have more malls and less parks,” said Chawla. “And they are full of couples. I am sure they too can’t find places, but children need a space to play.”
So, once a month, the family travels for nearly four hours, to visit Hiranandani gardens on Ghodbunder Road in Thane.
Chawla is determined that she will not let the city beat her. She has joined a pilates class as there’s no space in her locality for regular walks. “You have to keep dodging vehicles on the road, you are stumbling over potholes, broken footpaths, hawkers. Besides, cemented roads are not ideal for walking,” she said.
Although the designated open spaces in the city is 20.31 sq km as per the Development Plan, the city has only 6.24 sq km of open spaces, said the NGO Mumbai Nagrik Vikas Samiti. Mumbai's total area is 437.71 sq km, which implies that only 4.64 % of the land is for open spaces.
None of the 28-odd clubs and gymkhanas here caters to non-members. Of the seven civic-run swimming pools, only three are currently functional. Civic officials put the number of gardens in the city at over a mere 800.
It’s not easy to stay fit in Mumbai. But where there’s will there’s a way. Like the Chawlas, Arjun Nair, 24, a product manager who works at an Andheri firm, has found a fitness solution that suits him. “My company has a full fledged gym with trainers, so I use that,” the Kandivli resident said. “We also have a company cricket team, and they make arrangements for us to play on pitches in Goregaon. For me, playing cricket is the best way to keep fit.”
Residents have for years been fighting to hang on to the existing open spaces in and around their neighbourhood. Sometimes, the fight is to clear or prevent encroachments, but often it is with none other than the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and its policies.
The BMC’s caretaker policy, for instance, was stayed in 2007 by the state after citizens objected to it, calling it a blatant land-grabbing attempt. Under this policy, the BMC allowed large plots to be handed over to private bodies for 33 years, which could construct on 25% of the plot and maintain the entire plot. The BMC had been proposing to give away 49 recreation grounds to builders for building clubs.
Activists say it is also important that not all open grounds be converted into landscaped gardens as seems to be the trend; some spaces must be left as playgrounds
Rohit D’souza, 28, a Mulund resident and sports instructor, is trying to negotiate with civic authorities to preserve playgrounds. “If you construct a flowerbed, jogging track, benches and plant trees inside a playground, how much space is left for children to play sports such as football? “ he asked.
“Why do we need expensive theme gardens instead of just clean grounds lined with trees?” agreed Nayana Kathpalia, co-convener of Citispace, which works for open spaces. “Some grounds are used for weddings as 15 days of religious celebrations are allowed on playgrounds. We need clear rules not open to interpretations.”
With people and the city growing, open spaces must also grow, said PK Das, Juhu resident and architect. “Salt pans, creeks, beaches must be preserved and places such as railway tracks and stations should also be cultivated as open spaces,” he said.
Das pointed to Irla nallah, where nearly 10 km of space has been freed up for people by building a sidewalk.
Unfortunately, that’s more the exception than the rule. And until the civic and state authorities take the need for open spaces more seriously, people such as the Chawlas will have to continue to innovate to stay healthy and fit.
With inputs from Sucharita Kanjilal