How To Save Mumbai’s Open Spaces
If you want to see a lot of unanimously happy Mumbaikars, visit Marine Drive on a Sunday evening. The promenade and adjoining Chowpatty beach are packed with people having a tremendous time soaking in the sea breeze. In fact the few times you see Mumbaikars enjoying themselves en masse are during weekend visits to open areas like seafronts, gardens and parks. The sense of expansiveness you get in these places is precious in a city where a vast population and unplanned development have severely limited open spaces—to nine square feet per person to be precise. That’s not even enough for a game of hopscotch. No wonder Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom, who was recently in Mumbai to promote Proctor and Gamble’s playground-building project, observed that urban kids look “sluggish” because they have no place to play.
That dismal figure of nine square feet is the upshot of a study on open spaces commissioned by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority that was released last week. The research is meant to aid the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in its preparation of the next Development Plan, which will determine Mumbai’s spatial development for 20 years starting from 2014. This is a chance for the authorities to bring some order to Mumbai’s chaotic sprawl and save it from becoming completely unlivable. More importantly, it’s a chance for city dwellers to get involved, as the only way to protect open spaces in Mumbai is to campaign for their preservation. You might as well, because if the BMC has its way, every patch of green, thicket of mangroves or piece of coast will end up as housing complexes. In fact, activists say that the first step towards reclaiming an open space is knowing its reservation in the Development Plan.
To be sure, the Development Plan is hardly taken seriously. According to the MMRDA study, only 10.5 square kilometres of the 30 square kilometres of open spaces that have been marked on the existing plan are available to the public. These include beaches, gardens, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and playgrounds. The rest is either inaccessible to the public, such as our lakes and parts of the national park, or has been encroached upon by builders and slum dwellers. Some of the open spaces have restricted access as they’ve been given to private clubs as part of the controversial caretaker policy. The clubs allow the public to use their grounds only during certain hours of the day. This means that Mumbai falls far short (by about 90 per cent) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s standard of nine square metres or 96.8 square feet of open space per person. Even Tokyo, which like Greater Mumbai has a population of over 12 million, has six square metres per person.
As bleak as Mumbai’s future sounds, all is not lost. The city has an incredible culture of local activism and often, open spaces have been saved from builders and encroachers by vigilant citizens and Advanced Locality Managements. One of the most hard-won battles for open space took place in Juhu, which arguably has the most active citizens’ groups in the city. A mini forest is being planted on 23.5 acres by the suburb’s residents, who fought to reclaim the plot from a private company the BMC had leased it to build a club. The man planning the forest is architect P. K. Das, who was involved in beautifying Bandra Bandstand, Carter Road and Juhu beach. In March, Das mounted an ambitious exhibition called “Open Mumbai“, which envisioned a network of open spaces across the city, from pathways lining nullahs and cycling paths bordering creeks to plazas on railway station rooftops. Das’s proposal aims to add ten square kilometres of open space, something that would require significant modifications to the Development Plan. Uddhav Thackeray ordered civic corporators to attend “Open Mumbai”. It remains to be seen what lessons, if any, they’ve drawn from the exhibition.
It’s tragic that we have to fight for something as fundamental to our well-being as an open space. As with most problems that afflict Mumbai, the open space crisis boils down to real estate. In a city starved of land and short of housing, every vacant plot is a potential goldmine for builders—and corrupt bureaucrats who get kickbacks for parceling off pieces of land reserved for public use. On the other hand, you have the slum dweller, who has no choice but to encroach on public land because housing is out of his reach. So as long as Mumbai’s real estate scene is as skewed as it is, taking in the air will never be a breeze.Tags: BMC, Development Plan, MMRDA, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, Open Mumbai, Open Spaces, PK Das, The Viewfinder