Battle for open spaces half-won, but far from over

  • Shailesh Gaikwad, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jan 19, 2016 01:27 IST
The open spaces policy needs major changes with a clear rule that the citizens cannot be denied access or given restricted access. (File photo)

Citizens of Mumbai have a reason to feel happy. 

Their concern over open spaces—playgrounds, recreation grounds and gardens—falling into the hands of private entities is finally being taken seriously by the ruling parties. Taking note of the widespread criticism over the way the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP combine passed the controversial open spaces policy in the civic body and BJP’s U-turn on the issue, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has asked civic chief Ajoy Mehta to review the policy and also take back the 225 plots given to various entities over the years.

Read more: Uddhav slams BJP for flip-flop on open spaces

No need for review, just scrap policy, says Congress

The reason for such a knee-jerk reaction could be next year’s civic polls, as the BJP would not like to be at the receiving end of citizens’ ire. Still, political parties are now finding it difficult to ignore the issue. This is something similar to 2006-07, when Hindustan Times and erstwhile citizen group Citispace launched a campaign to save open spaces. Then, the Sena-BJP combine was in favour of the policy, but then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh intervened after prominent Mumbai citizens wrote an open letter to him and questions were raised in the state Assembly. His successor Ashok Chavan directed the BMC to prepare a new policy. There was a long pause before the BMC came with the revised policy-- the same old one with some changes and ruling parties tried to get it passed.

Once again they underestimated the power of citizen groups to mould public opinion. The BJP first tried to score over the Sena by opposing the policy, but then quietly agreed to pass it. The two parties even managed to get it cleared in the BMC’s general body meeting last week, but the BJP developed cold feet when it evoked sharp criticism. What Citispace did earlier is being done by NAGAR now. The H-West Federation, Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI) and some other citizen as well as advocacy groups and citizen activists are raising their voices against the policy. That the citizens of Mumbai have again forced the city and state governments to take note of their protests is surely a positive development.

However, the battle for open spaces is far from over.

The policy needs major changes with a clear rule that the citizens cannot be denied access or given restricted access. Open spaces are public property and every Mumbaiite has a right to use them. Civic officials are now saying that maintaining open spaces is not an obligatory duty of the BMC. Well, the BMC collects Rs30,000 crore a year from citizens and apparently spends the same amount on governing the city. It claims ownership of public spaces in the city. Then why can’t it maintain open spaces in the city? In any case, it doesn’t have great reputation of running the city well. It has failed miserably in preventing slums on public land, checking illegal construction and preventing hawkers from encroaching upon roads, footpaths and all available public spaces. Nobody is counting Mumbai among the cleanest cities in India, forget the world. The roads are pathetic in many places and one can’t even put his/her feet on most footpaths in the city. Is it too much to expect the civic body and its rulers to maintain the playgrounds, recreation grounds and gardens in the city for the taxpayers? It would make more sense for the citizen groups to now demand that the maintenance of open spaces be included among the obligatory duties of the BMC and of course a policy which favours the citizens, not politicians and moneybags.

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