Desai Maidan is a tale of lost opportunities

FPJ BureauUpdated: Saturday, June 01, 2019, 11:17 PM IST
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Gabriel Lane in Mahim lost out on a football-sized ground and had to make do with one-third of the plot because the residents did not wake up in time.

Mumbai : Mahim’s Desai Maidan is the story of how a neighbourhood lost out on a football-sized ground and had to make do with one-third of the plot because the residents did not wake up in time.

Now, even the BMC which is the custodian of the ground, has encroached on it with civic garbage dump and three makeshift municipal chowkies.    Much more of the ground will be lost if a suspicious SRA project to rehabilitate the 50-odd tenants of a pre-existing chawl in the same plot goes through.

Over the last ten years, a handful of local residents have been fighting to restore the open space but with little success.

Desai Maidan is a D-shaped playground in a lower middle class locality. According to the current civic development plan (DP), it was supposed to be converted into a 7,943 sq. metre playground.

The Naseerwanji Wadi Chawl which occupied a part of the plot was to be demolished and its residents relocated elsewhere. The `baithi’ chawl remains there and some illegal additions have been made to it. To make matters worse, the space between the chawl and the playground has slowly come to be used as a garbage dump by the BMC itself.

“The entire plot was acquired by the BMC under the Town Planning Scheme in the 1960s. The place was supposed to be opened up as a playground and the tenants were supposed to be rehabilitated on a different plot of land. But till date, no progress has been made,” lamented Ashok Rawat of the Dadar Advanced Locality Management (ALM).

Several activists from ALM units have been working towards securing the playground.  “The stink peaks at night when the garbage trucks from the restaurants in the vicinity come to dump the waste,” said Simon D’Costa who lives right next to it. Despite pursuing the matter with BMC officials since 10 years, his efforts haven’t borne fruits.

“We have sent more than 300 letters to various BMC departments, including to the commissioners. Desai Maidan is the only open space in Mahim. If it is not saved, children will have to travel for about 2-2.5 km to go to the nearest playground, Shivaji Park,” he says.

The concern of the residents spiked up multifold ever since they learnt that the chawl residents could be rehabilitated there itself.

An RTI application by ex-corporator of G-North ward Meena Desai showed that BMC has assessed the land, judging it viable for rehabilitation of the 48 chawl tenants in the same premises. As per Annexure 2 of the survey, the developer can acquire the land at Rs 3112 per sq. feet, much below the existing market rate of around Rs 24,000 per sq. feet.

“In spite of the plot being marked for a playground in the DP, the BMC was trying to rehabilitate people on the same premises. From 2008-2010, four developers were involved in the proposal process. By selling land at cheap rates, the developer would have accommodated the existing tenants and sold the rest at market rates, thus making immense profits at the cost of the citizens’ open space,” said Meera Desai.

When asked about the status of the land under BMC, local Assistant Commissioner Sharad Ughade promised proactive action about the garbage dump. Asked about the suspicious housing project, he said, “It’s an old issue and several factors are involved. We will pursue the matter soon.”

But two months after the assurance, the garbage dump as well as the chawl stays on the spot. Ughade has even stopped responding to this correspondent’s calls.

The officials at BMC’s Estate Department confirmed the survey conducted. “It was later found that the land doesn’t come under the Section 33 (7) of the SRA Act under which the redevelopment project was proposed. There has been a stay ever since,” said an official.

The residents of the chawl, however, have a different story to tell.

“Omkar Developers had approached us in 2009 and taken our consent to redevelop the property. The developer has promised us flats of 500 sq. feet in the same premises. We were given a token money of Rs 50,000 as an advance,” said Agnelo Fernandes, a resident since 1962.

“The developer has promised apartments even to those not eligible. They say that they haven’t managed to secure a Letter of Intent yet. A few months ago, we were told that there will be positive developments soon,” added Fernandes.

This is the fifth in the series chronicling citizens’ struggles for open spaces. The previous articles have dealt with troubled open spaces in Colaba, Mogul Lane in Mahim, Borivali and Bandra Reclamation.

Omkar Khandekar

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