Belie not our Port Trust legacy

The union minister for road transport, highways and shipping, Nitin Gadkari, is a much-remembered man in Mumbai. It is he who, it is said, during his stint in the Maharashtra government as the public works minister, speeded up the several infrastructure projects that changed the face of the city. These include flyovers, roads and the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. His own website calls him a ‘visionary performer.’

Having performed so well in the city, he has not forgotten it now that he has moved to Delhi. He wants to do something more, in fact, a lot more. Last week, he announced that in his new capacity, he had set up a committee to recommend on how large parcels of land being poorly used in Mumbai could be better utilised. In his words, the 1,800 acres of land controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust should now be monetised. Not only would it boost the organisation’s flagging fortunes, but would also give the city much-needed infrastructure, he feels.

He has many ideas of his own. Why not turn the east side of the city – 28 kilometres of it – into a tourist destination? This neglected section could have floating restaurants, museums, malls, office complexes and even a giant wheel like London Eye, a giant ferris wheel. The value of this unused land is a whopping Rs 75,000 crore, Gadkari says. He knows about these things.

Some readers may be confused about exactly which land he is speaking of. The Port Trust is probably the biggest landowner in the city and its holdings stretch (roughly) from the southern tip to Wadala, including most of what is called P D’Mello Road. This area is currently populated by docks, warehouses, godowns, ship-breaking yards, slums and small businesses. A few residential buildings too dot the way.

Traffic along the route is, or used to be, heavily commercial traffic, like trucks and tankers, though over the years, thanks to the declining fortunes of the Port Trust, that too has reduced. It is a part of the city no one goes to unless they have work or to reach south Mumbai quickly. That too changed when the Eastern Freeway opened and cut down travel time drastically. In fact, it is the freeway that has opened up possibilities for real estate development in the area. No doubt, visionaries like Gadkari and many similar politicians began to see a golden opportunity to bring much-needed infrastructure like floating restaurants and giant wheels.

To give an idea of how much land is at stake, consider that the mill lands in Parel amounted to just 600 acres and see what kind of glass and chrome towers (and hotels and restaurants) have come up there. The eastern side also has the advantage of being the waterfront, which makes it premium real estate play. Condominiums and apartments could be sold at unheard of prices.

The mill area in fact provides a good reason to look at the Eastside project seriously. It might help if those with long memories cast their minds back to the early 1990s. After the textile workers’ strike was over and most of the mills shut down or were in poor shape, the government allowed them to sell small portions – 15 per cent – of their land to raise funds.

The mill-owners then requested they be permitted to sell the mills entirely and get out of the business; this too was allowed, provided one-third of the land was given for public housing and another third for open spaces and utilities. This would have brought parks, gardens, museums and affordable housing for Mumbai’s hapless residents.

Did that happen? No. Parel’s real estate prices are among the highest in the city and not a day passes without another luxury condominium project being announced. Forget public housing, not a small public park is to be seen anywhere in the area where mills and chawls for workers once stood.

The sons of yesterday’s mill workers are today’s drivers and waiters. The mill-owners and the government did not think it important to set up a museum to record the seminal importance of the textile industry to the growth of this metropolis.

The docks have contributed immensely to the history of Mumbai. It was here that the great shipbuilders of Surat arrived to make vessels for the British. It was the natural harbour that attracted the British, who then used it for trade, in which Indian merchants participated, exporting spices, cotton and other goods to the rest of the world. This cotton created immense fortunes that then went towards constructing the grand Gothic edifices that make Mumbai what it is. Mumbai and the docks are inextricably linked.

Not only will this rich legacy be ground into the dust, but any indiscriminate opening up of lands to private enterprises will completely shut out everyone, but the rich. Gadkari says private developers will not be allowed to operate here, but how long will that restriction hold? Will luxury apartments be built by MHADA?

There would be no objection to freeing up the dock lands, provided it is done transparently and for the general good of the citizens. The government must take the city into confidence at each step and open up debate on every new policy. Citizens, on their part need to be alert. Yes, we wouldn’t mind a floating restaurant or two, provided thousands of affordable apartments are also constructed along with themSidharth Bhatia

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