In a setback to the decade-long fight by citizens’ groups to save Mumbai’s last open spaces from falling into private hands, the BJP did a U-turn and helped the Shiv Sena push through in the BMC on Wednesday a plan to allow adoption of playgrounds and recreation grounds by private entities.
This new open spaces policy could curb free public access to the city’s 1,068 such plots, which together come to about 1,200 acres. This fear stems from the fate of the nine big plots handed over to private organisations under the earlier caretaker policy that was stayed in 2007, within a year of coming into effect. The nine plots — five are with politicians from ruling allies in the BMC — still remain in private hands and public access to them is severely restricted.
Activists fear the new policy could see the return of the caretaker policy, through the back door.
The BJP, which had opposed the open spaces policy just two months back -- its city chief Ashish Shelar had even demanded a white paper on the status of the plots and the organisations that benefited under the old policy -- was silent on the controversial clauses at the BMC general body on Wednesday.
Opposition parties, including the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Samajwadi Party demanded the policy be rejected as it only protected the organisations that had misused the plots and did nothing to make the open spaces available to citizens.
The new policy says local corporators will be on the scrutiny committee and plots given under the earlier caretaker policy will be inspected. If there have been violations, the plots will be taken back from the NGOs. If not, the contracts will be renewed.
“We are dismayed by the fact that the policy has been passed with no changes. Particularly in light of the fact that both the civic authorities and the state government had voiced their concern at some of the provisions and had pledged in so many words to amend it to a more citizen and city friendly policy. This is a tremendous let down,” said Meher Rafat, trustee, NAGAR.
The contentious policy was put on hold for the past two months, with the ruling party Shiv Sena delaying discussion on the policy fearing lack of votes. The Sena has 75 members in the 227-strong BMC general council and the BJP 31. However in an informal meeting on Tuesday, the Shiv Sena convinced its miffed partner to extend support to its policy.
Seeking to defend its U-turn, the BJP group leader Manoj Kotak said, “Our stand has always been clear on the issue. We wanted discussion on the policy so we come up with a strong policy beneficial for the citizens. We have asked some questions to the administration. City without an open space policy will be harmful.”
On Wednesday, the BJP demanded the administration respond to questions on the approval of commercial and construction activities on the adopted plots, eligibility of NGOs. However, a close look at the policy shows that all these queries were already answered in the policy.