The death warrant for Mumbai’s open spaces is (almost) ready
In essence, the new policy has it that citizens, average neighbourhood groups and voluntary organisations of citizens will not have a say in the use and maintenance of recreation grounds and play grounds – RGs and PGs in official jargonmumbai Updated: Nov 10, 2015 22:36 IST
Besides Indian cricket, if there is another area of glaring conflict of interest, it must be politicians in power formulating policies. Just how nefarious this can be is seen in the open spaces policy for Mumbai that is a step away from being finalised. If this policy is approved by the general body of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – and there are hardly grounds for it not to be – the city will see a further compromise in the number and quality of its meagre open spaces in the next decade.
In essence, the new policy has it that citizens, average neighbourhood groups and voluntary organisations of citizens will not have a say in the use and maintenance of recreation grounds and play grounds – RGs and PGs in official jargon. Instead, there will be an evaluation system in which the civic body’s committees comprising bureaucrats and possibly politicians will select organisations to maintain them. Worse, weightage will be given to organisations with an annual turnover of Rs 1 to 5 crore.
There are other shortcomings in the policy. One is that construction on open spaces may be permitted for “special cases” which is a shield to usurp them for private buildings/complexes with restricted entry. This and other flaws were outlined by 12 citizens’ groups in the letter sent to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis two days back, as a port of last call. They compellingly argued that the policy must be scrapped.
If only Fadnavis was a disinterested decision-maker up the hierarchy. But his party, the BJP, had happily joined forces with its temperamental ally Shiv Sena to push through the policy with a 12-11 majority in the civic improvements committee the very day that the groups appealed to Fadnavis. A BJP corporator chairs this committee and believes that the inclusion of corporators in the scrutiny and supervisory committees for RGs and PGs is the only aspect of the policy that needs attention. This is backdoor entry for local politicians in the maintenance of the grounds in their areas.
Take into consideration the following factors: politicians with barely 25% to 30% vote in a ward can become corporators, local politicians set up or control social or cultural organisations in a neighbourhood, such organisations have often locked horns with more representative non-political civic organisations and locality management groups in the past, politician-backed organisations are most capable of meeting the financial condition required to maintain RGs and PGs, and politicians can work the system to get permission for construction as “special cases”. What can be a more devious way of gaining de facto control over open spaces, neighbourhood by neighbourhood and ward by ward right across the city, and constructing on them?
It is only narrow and self-serving political interests which can drive politicians to formulate such a lop-sided, myopic and citizen-non-friendly policy on open spaces. This, in a city which has barely 1.26 square metres per person compared to nearly twice that in Hong Kong, six times in Singapore and a staggering 25 times that in New York. The Congress and other parties oppose the policy but this could be a political stunt.
The ball is now in Fadnavis’s court. He would have to take on the Shiv Sena on this issue besides annoying some in his party. Sena corporators have evolved a template of how to privatise public open spaces. Remember Ravindra Waikar’s Matoshree Club? The CM repeatedly talks of making Mumbai a world-class city; it would have to include open spaces besides his pet mega-infrastructure projects.
The fundamental issue goes beyond the ill-conceived policy. It is that the country’s richest civic body with an annual budget of more than Rs31,000 crore, of which Rs200 crore is allocated to maintaining open spaces, is unable or unwilling to fulfil the responsibility. Out-sourcing this, that too to powerful local politicians, is akin to signing the death warrant for city’s open spaces.