Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has promised to double the open space each Mumbaiite can access, but more than one-third of the city’s open spaces might be lost permanently to encroachments. Now, officials are saying they will look for new plots to convert into open spaces. “We will look for new open spaces that can be used by the public,” said R Balachandran, chief engineer, development plan. “We will examine the deficiencies and plan accordingly.”
However, acquiring new open spaces or freeing the encroached spaces is very difficult in a land-starved city, admit civic officials as well as citizen activists.
According to a survey conducted by Nagar (formerly known as Citispace), an NGO that campaigns for the protection of open spaces, 223 of the 692 open spaces in Mumbai have been encroached on. Slums, residential complexes, commercial buildings, offices of political parties, and schools and gymkhanas that deny access to the public have come up on earmarked open spaces.
“The civic body officials have never reacted in a positive manner to our fight to reclaim our open spaces,” said Neera Punj, convener of Nagar. “If they had, this situation would not have been out of hand, as it is today. Adding to these encroachments is the fact that they have increased the time allotted for political rallies on the few available open spaces,” she added.
Fadnavis told the state assembly on December 16 that open spaces in Mumbai would be increased to 2 square metres per person from the current ratio of 1 square metre per person. He had said that he would hold a meeting to decide the policy on maintaining the open spaces in the city and making them accessible for citizens.
The L ward which consists of Kurla and parts of Kalina registered the highest number of encroachments -- 80 of 139. Several spaces here are partially or completely occupied by slums. “There is nothing that can be done to retrieve the open spaces here unless the DP department and Slum Rehabilitation Authority come to a consensus.” said an official from the L ward.
The chief minister has promised a new policy on relocating slums, bit says Laxmi Bhagwan Hankare, who has been staying in the Rahul Nagar area of Chunabhatti for the last 40 years: “I remember bringing mud from Chunabhatti station and making our house. This place was nothing but a jungle and nallah. After living here almost all my life, finding a new place would be impossible. Development plans should be made keeping us in mind”.
The city has lacked a comprehensive plan for open spaces for the last seven years. An open space policy was stalled in 2007 after activists objected to the caretaker system under which private parties could build on part of open spaces in exchange for maintaining them. The activists favour the adoption system under which private organizations can maintain open spaces but not build on them.
“While 70% of the open spaces were supposed to be open to the public ,10-15% could be developed. Now, we will have to study each construction to verify encroachment,” said Harshad Kale, assistant commissioner of M-west Ward, Chembur.
Fadnavis’ assurance to the assembly is in line with what the BMC is proposing in the new development plan (DP) for the city.
The 1991 DP, which is in effect, now had promised 2sqm of open space per person in the island city and 5 sqm in the suburbs. However, the average actual existing open space accessible to citizens now is 1 sqm per person. The BMC has proposed to make it to 2 sqm across the city in the new DP while national standard is 10 square meters per person.
Fadnavis’ assurance to the assembly is considered as the state government’s nod for the plan.