शनिवार, 22 मार्च 2008

Bageecha Bachao Mumbai Bachao

Open Spaces are not a luxury but a necessity for the physical, mental and social health of a metropolis says Naina Kathpalia
Mumbai's aspirations for becoming a global city are intrinsically linked to maintaining certain international standards. These international guidelines clearly state that there should be four acres for green open spaces in an urban environment per 1000 people - a figure, which most mega cities like Delhi, London and New York exceed. Mumbai, at an abysmal 0.03 acres per 1000 people, is one of the poorest. It is ironical that while Mumbai's policy makers and corporate leaders are exchanging notes and ideas with the Mayor of London and his team towards developing Mumbai as a global city, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) seems to be working tangentially.
On 21 November 2007, it passed a regressive Caretaker Policy, which if implemented, will deprive the common man access to "Reserved Public Open Spaces". Internationally, parks and gardens are the generic names for public open spaces. They are a bench mark for all good development and considered essential for ensuring a good quality of life. This does not seem to be the case in Mumbai. Money is being poured into Mumbai for developmental needs, but the city is deteriorating. In a marked contrast to cities like Delhi and Hyderabad, Mumbaikars are furiously building with little thought to their environment. If one were to search for the reasons behind this move, one does not have to look very far. Mumbai's sky rocketing land prices, paucity of land and coalition politics leading to insecure politicians looking at making quick gains are some of the reasons why the state government and the MCGM are pursuing policies blatantly anti the common man, making him, with his scant resources and lack of access to places of recreation, the greatest casualty.
Apart from the irreparable loss to the citizens, the physical safety of our city is also at high risk. During the floods of 26 July 2005, over 500 lost their lives, and there was a loss of hundreds of crores worth of property. There have been a number of expert reports holding forth on this issue. Each one, including the Government's Chitale report, stresses the need for open, un-surfaced spaces to act as sponges to absorb excess water in the eventuality of heavy rainfall. Climate change is an undisputed reality. Given that several such catastrophic events have been scientifically foretold, how can Mumbai in all its conscience, actually destroy its own defenses?
Mumbai suffered a body blow last year when the Supreme Court, inexplicably, overturned the Bombay High Court ruling in the mill lands case, and the city lost its chance to have a sizeable green lung. The more recent casualty is the much awaited Eastern Waterfront Project, with its inclusion of promenades, parks, gardens and other public amenities, which seems to have sunk before it started.

Citizen Action
CitiSpace (Citizens' Forum for Protection of Public Spaces) has been working since 1999 to save recreation grounds, playgrounds, parks and gardens, which are designated as "Reserved Open Spaces" in the development plan of greater Mumbai. Established in June 1998, the NGO networks with over 500 resident associations, Community Based Organisations (CBOs), NGOs, trade/commercial establishments and individuals in most of Mumbai's 24 wards. Its creed is the protection of all public and open spaces (footpaths, playgrounds, recreation grounds, beaches and mangroves) and advocacy of their rightful use.
In 2006 the Government of Maharashtra and MCGM came forth with a regressive and anti-citizen policy wherein the attractions of the lucrative "caretaker" route doom the city-friendly "adoption" policy to failure. CitiSpace, was shocked to see this and in response spearheaded the recent movement against it. An open letter addressing the Chief Minister and signed by eminent citizens was published in a leading daily drawing his attention to this bad policy. The resulting public pressure led to the State government directing the MCGM to stay the 2006 RG/PG policy. However, it is early days yet and it is essential to ensure that the Caretaker concept is completely repealed.

The Caretaker Policy
The Caretaker Policy was geared towards handing over large chunks of open space - reserved plots of 5000 sq. meters and over and 15000 sq. meters - for development of private clubs, which include facilities such as sports, restaurants, bars, and so on. These open spaces are held in public trust by the government and are to be looked after by them with public money - taxes.
Since clubs, by their very nature, have restricted membership and thereby closed to the general public, however 'correctly' the contractual agreement between the MCGM and the private party may read, the undeniable fact is that on the ground it has been proved beyond doubt that implementation and enforcement of any such agreement by the MCGM is virtually non-existent, allowing the club authorities to run their facility as a personal fiefdom. Thus to hand over public land in this fashion is immoral.
The oft repeated excuse 'lack of funds' does not hold water. The MCGM has allocated 400 crores in the 2007-20008 Budget, for public open spaces. There are currently 940 acres (information received under Right To Information Act) of such reserved open spaces available for adoption/ caretaker in Greater Mumbai. Looking at the budgets of Oval Maidan (22 acres) and Kridangan Sangopan Samiti Garden (1.35 acres) both public open spaces, one finds that the average capital costs plus maintenance budget for one year comes to an approximate 11 lakhs per acre. This does not account for the skating rink at the Kridangan Garden, as it would not apply to most grounds. Both Oval Maidan and Kridangan Garden are maintained in prime condition under the adoption scheme. At 11 Lakhs an acre, 940 acres would cost the MCGM 103.4 Crores leaving 296.6 Crore for additional facilities!

Defining Adoption and Caretaker Concepts
- Reserved land given for 5 years.
- For restoring and maintaining.
- No construction/ building allowed except a 10' x 10' gardener's hut. That is 100 sq. ft. built up.
- Only fencing, landscaping, lighting & security.

- Reserved land given for minimum 10 years, which can extend indefinitely.
- Restricted entry into the facility for members only.
- For restoring and maintaining.
- Construction and building allowed, including bars, gymkhanas, restaurants, and so on.
- 25 percent to 33 percent of the area of the ground allowed for construction and buildings.
- 10 percent of plot area as plinth - 15 percent of the total plot as FSI.
- 25 percent of plot to be used for ancillary structures, that is, 1000 sq. ft. built up on a designated open space is reserved as per D.P Rules!

The Desired Road Map
To remedy this faulty policy in public interest, MCGM must take certain steps supported by the State Government. This should be followed by a public debate.

- The budgeted amount of Rs. 400 crore should be used first to secure all MCGM reserved grounds with fencing and a security arrangement.
- There should be no blanket policy based entirely on the size of the reserved open spaces
- A ward-wise survey of plots of 5000 sq m and above and 15000 sq m and above should be undertaken to assess the requirement of each municipal ward, with regard to the needs of the community for a sports facility.
- Ward-wise suggestion/objection should be conducted in a transparent manner after the survey results are disseminated to the public.
- The sports facility must be such that it serves all members of the community with no restricted membership. There are several models available for this. A hybrid model where the MCGM develops the facility with its own funds and the stakeholders manage it with funds from corporations is one such option.
- Private clubs cannot be built on reserved open spaces. They must be built on land purchased by the promoters.

The conclusion drawn from this discussion is obvious. MCGM must not hand over public land to private interest as land is finite - it cannot be recovered! If it wants its citizens to add their bit and assist them, then they should follow the 'Adoption' Policy. This differs from the Caretaker module in that it is more citizen-friendly, allows neighborhood committees to come forward in the maintenance and upkeep of their open spaces and is more environment sensitive as it does not allow any construction on the adopted space other than a small mali chowky (gardener's hut).
For this policy to succeed, the MCGM must first make the public aware that such a policy exists, and where to find the information. In order to do so, It should use the print media, like major English, Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati newspapers to explain the policy and ensure that a list of all RG/PG Parks and gardens available for adoption are placed simultaneously on the Ward Office Notice Board, at the site, at other public spots in the locality, in the print and electronic media and the MCGM web site. The application system needs to be streamlined. The present time line of 30 days should be extended to enable citizen volunteers who undertake such projects on behalf of MCGM and the city adequate time for funding and planning.
These are some of the best practices that could save Mumbai's open spaces. They need to be laid down by law, and implemented both in letter and spirit by the authorities. Future generations of Mumbaikers will grow up without knowing what it is to run and play in a maidan!
— The author is Co-Convenor, CitiSpace

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