Open or shut?
2,99,675.25 square metres. Or 74 acres. Almost four times the size of Oval Maidan. This the area occupied by Mumbai’s open spaces, rightfully yours, which has been encroached upon.
In addition, there are 3,000 acres at stake as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) dithers on acquiring plots reserved as open spaces in the Development Plan, a blueprint for the city’s layout.
Even as the BMC does little to preserve and maintain these critical spaces, citizens’ group Citispace has come out with a fact file on what remains of the city’s lungs. Titled Breathing Space, the dossier covers 600 reserved open spaces and what has become of them.
The statistics could set off some alarm bells. For example, across Mumbai’s 24 wards, an average of 90 per cent of the land is used for non-green purposes. Of the rest, 7 to 8 per cent is reserved for greenery, but is vulnerable to encroachment.
According to the dossier, the BMC has acquired less than a quarter of the land marked for open spaces. It makes the point that Mumbai risks losing 3,000 acres only because the BMC hasn’t bothered to acquire them in time.
The plots haven’t been acquired for almost 20 years now, since the last Development Plan came into effect in 1991. These are the plots in danger of slipping out of the BMC’s hands. If a developer issues a purchase notice to the BMC about a plot and the BMC does not acquire it within a year after that, it loses all right over the plot.
The BMC said it would look into the matter. “We will ensure that encroachments are cleared in due time. It’s just that we need to look at them case by case,” said Additional Municipal Commissioner Aseem Gupta. “Most of the plots earmarked as open spaces haven’t been acquired because they are encroached upon. If they are pre-1995 encroachments, we need to give them alternative accommodation. However, currently all rehabilitation tenements are being allotted only to people affected by infrastructure projects.”
“Private developers eyeing these plots are being helped by the BMC’s lack of interest,” said Neera Punj, convenor, Citispace.
It’s been clear for years that the city’s open spaces are dying, but the state doesn’t have a single policy on them. The BMC, which is in charge of the spaces, had introduced two policies.
The ‘adoption policy’ entailed handing over open spaces to citizens’ groups and non-governmental organisations. The plot would be handed over for five years for a deposit of Rs 25,000. No construction would be allowed on it except for a 10 ft x 10 ft security enclosure. Giving it the thumbs up, activists called it a “democratisation of open spaces”.
Under the ‘caretaker policy’, large plots would be handed over to trusts or corporations for a minimum of 33 years. The trusts could use 25 per cent of the plot for construction, while maintaining and operating the rest. This, citizens say, is problematic because the trusts encroach on the open areas and keep them off limits for the average citizen.
The outcry that followed the handing over of eight plots to trusts forced the state to put on hold the controversial policy in November 2007. But there was collateral damage — even the adoption policy was stayed in early 2008.
So, while the state stays mum, thousands of acres of precious open space continue to hang in the balance.