As anyone who lives in Mumbai will tell you, the city has very few really open spaces. In this concrete jungle, which is getting denser by the year, there are relatively few areas which are expansive and green and where the citizens can go and feel relaxed. Public parks, gardens, maidans — we have them, but these are few and do not compare to other cities.
The average citizen is said to have 1.1 metres of open space as compared to over 31 metres for every Londoner and 26.4 metres for every New Yorker. Let’s look at it in a different way — Central Park, which is in the middle of New York, is 843 acres in size and is considered the green lung of the city, is far more built up than Mumbai is. Our counterparts are the Mahalaxmi Race Course – 225 acres – and Aarey Milk Colony – 1287 hectares, though of course the latter is on the distant outskirts of the city. Even so, along with the Borivali national park, these are spaces we can be proud of. Then there are the maidans of south Mumbai – Oval, Cross and Azad – which have a historic legacy and which are open and available to every citizen. It is a pleasure to see cricket being played by youngsters and people strolling in the evenings, enjoying the breeze that wafts from the sea.
But of course, like all open spaces in Mumbai, these attract the attention of private sector players and politicians. They find newer and newer ways to encroach upon gardens, parks and vast tracts of greenery. Let us look at a few recent instances:
The government had plans to set up a depot for the Metro 3 at Aarey Milk Colony. It would have meant destruction of green spaces and more construction. Citizen action saved it.
Two metro stations will affect the Oval and Azad Maidans during construction. Though the authorities have said that the Oval will be handed back in the same condition as now, after the construction is over, citizens are not convinced.
Concerted public action can be quite effective. All around the city, citizens’ groups have emerged which keep an eye out for malfeasance by private enterprises, politicians or officials. However, these are not always successful. We all know of some garden or the other that has been neatly taken over by private players and thus shut out the average Mumbaikar.
A new policy by the BMC proposes to let private players manage parks and gardens. Past experience shows that such private-public partnerships end up favouring the latter, with the public at large losing out. It is the private enterprise which takes control of BMC land and then decides how to run it.
Besides these three, there is of course the perpetual plan, which pops up every now and then, to take over the race course and build an entertainment park there. What could be more ludicrous than that? To destroy a beautiful stretch of greenery, which is used by thousands of citizens and which is like a mini green lung; what kind of public policy is that?
Why do our city’s fathers and mothers and legislators want to lay their hands on green spaces? This is a good question that has several answers. Most people think it is because they are in cahoots with builders and corporates and want to facilitate the handing over of open spaces to them. That may be true, but is not the whole truth.
There is also the question of control. A politician feels compelled to exercise power and show who the boss is. In the absence of organised action by citizens, politicians feel emboldened and instead of thinking of themselves as custodians of public welfare and property, start imagining themselves as owners. Not all are like that of course; even in the BMC, many are protesting against the move to allow private groups to take control of public spaces. But often such voices don’t get heard.
Things are now changing. The public is becoming more and more aware. As the Aarey example showed, concerted public action can be quite effective. RTI is an effective tool. Media coverage and amplification through social media can raise awareness and even stop any wrong move in its tracks. All around the city, citizens’ groups have emerged which keep an eye out for malfeasance by private enterprises, politicians or officials. These are not always successful. We all know of some garden or the other that has been neatly taken over by private players and thus shut out the average Mumbaikar.
It is an ongoing struggle. For Mumbaikars, already under pressure for lack of open spaces, every inch of greenery is vital not just to the city but also to their health. Future generations need more greenery, not less. Unfortunately, our policy makers and private entrepreneurs, in their greed for short term gains, tend to ignore those imperatives. If politicians grasp that their constituents could get angry and vote against them for their stance on important civic issues, they will change. And what could be more important than open spaces?