In an unexpected move, the Mumbai civic authorities are planning an interim policy on maintaining open spaces in the city, under which private organisations, non-government organisations and citizen groups will once again get a chance to maintain the 216 plots taken back from them after CM Devendra Fadnavis ordered a review of the policy.
Citizen activists, who have been fighting a battle to ensure that the few open spaces (playgrounds, recreation grounds and gardens) in the city are used for citizens, have said it could amount to safeguarding the interests of politicians in possession of public open spaces. Why did the civic body need to come up with a temporary policy just before the civic polls when the issue is pending and being discussed for close to a decade, they asked.
The policy was passed hurriedly, less than two months before the tenure of the current elected body in the BMC comes to an end and days before the restrictions on the ruling parties are imposed under the election code of conduct. The policy will now need a nod by the general body of elected representatives to the BMC.
It will allow any organisation or NGO to adopt an open space for maintenance for 11 months on an interim basis, until the final open spaces policy is formulated. Civic officials said a committee of three civic officials will decide if an NGO/organisation can continue to maintain the garden or if it will be taken back, as per set guidelines. The guidelines include non-discriminatory access, free of charge entry for citizens and adherence to timings decided by the BMC and no commercial or political activities.
Citizen groups have raised a question mark over the entire exercise.
“Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money and time, the BMC could have worked on original policy. The BMC could have assessed all the gardens before taking it back, instead they only took plots from activists, who were against the policy and not the politicians, who are misusing power,” said Nayana Kathpalia, trustee NAGAR, an NGO that had fought to save depleting open spaces.
Activists are pointing out that the interim policy is being brought keeping an eye on the civic polls and could be used by politicians to usurp public-owned open spaces. There is a possibility that the authorities may keep extending the interim policy instead of bringing a proper one, they said.
Several politicians have been earlier criticised for discrimination and charging fees for the entrance into the public parks, which must ideally be free of cost. Following strong opposition by various citizen groups, the BMC in 2007 stayed a controversial policy, under which it had sought to handover open spaces to a private organisation for maintenance. Under a controversial clause of that policy, the civic body wanted to allow the private organisations or NGOs to build clubhouses or other structures on a part of the open spaces for protecting the same. Citizen groups and activists had objected to the same, pointing out that the politicians who had already taken public plots were denying access to citizens. Following the uproar, the controversial policy was stayed in 2007. After that, there were a couple of attempts to revive the policy but the citizen groups forced the state government to put it on hold because of the controversial provisions. The Hindustan Times had ran a series of stories pointing out the need to make available the open spaces for the citizens.
BMC had then last year, tabled a new policy, which again had controversial clauses which could have resulted in preferential treatment to some groups.
Amid fracas over the new open spaces policy Fadnavis had ordered the civic body to take back the 216 leased plots from various organisations and review the policy.
However, instead of coming up with a reviewed policy, BMC tabled a interim policy which in turn gives the politicians a chance to hold on to the gardens/playground.
“BMC will have to assure that these plots do not go to land sharks and the guidelines are adhered to otherwise it will be the same old story,” said Vidya Vaidya, member, H-West Federation.
The policy will now be tabled before all 227 Corporators’ general body meeting before the code of conduct is effective in January.
With elections around the corner, sources in the BMC said it is unlikely the BMC will release an original open spaces policy any time soon. The interim policy is just a face-saving exercise after CM Devendra Fadnavis’ order who said plots should be returned, in the Assembly session in July, said sources.
Significantly, while the Sena is strongly in favour of the controversial clause in the open spaces policy, its alliance partner the BJP has been doing a flip-flop.
Earlier in October, the BJP first agreed for an interim policy but later backtracked. On Wednesday, it again supported the Sena and passed the policy that will now move to general body meeting, just before election.
“This is undemocratic. The policy is to support the BJP-Sena corporators who don’t want to let go of the plots they maintain under the old policy. BJP should not now run to CM as last time after giving their support to Sena. Both are equally responsible for the plight of open spaces in the city,” said Mohsin Haider, Congress Corporator.
Currently, 141 plots out of the 226 have been taken back in various phases.