Eastern waterfront revamp: New plan leaves just 74 hectares open space for Mumbai

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The land belongs to the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT, the city’s biggest land-owner), and in a city starved of open spaces and citizen amenities, is perhaps the last chance to renew itself.

The legend goes that centuries ago, when Mumbai was only a group of seven islands, people often crossed from one island to another during low tide, with only the slush to confront. The simple folk at the time – mostly the resident Koli community – would often do this for reasons of trade, fishing, or meeting their extended families. Over the last several centuries, though, Mumbai has grown into a global cosmopolitan city with a population of 12.4 million and has over 10 million more people in its extended metropolitan region; all of this from just seven islands reclaimed by the occupying British in the 17th century. In the intervening period, the city has expanded its real estate and shrunk its open spaces.

This marvel of reclaimed land is once again in danger of losing what could be its last bastion of open space if a new plan to redevelop the city’s eastern waterfront – spread across 966.3 hectares along 28 km of the eastern coastline from Wadala in the city’s central area to Colaba in the south – is adopted by the government. The land belongs to the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT, the city’s biggest land-owner), and in a city starved of open spaces and citizen amenities, is perhaps the last chance to renew itself.
The new plan, envisaged by MbPT and whose draft has now been put in the public domain, denies the city this large-scale transformation. Instead of the planned public promenades, gardens, open spaces, playgrounds and public spaces for recreation as well as for art and culture that were part of a November 2014 report authored by senior IAS officer Rani Jadhav, the December 2018 report by MbPT reveals two of its many objectives to be “unlocking the commercial potential of the land” and “create a flexible plan to meet market demands.”

Town planners feel that this can be translated as only one thing: a capitulation to real estate developers. Renowned civil engineer and town planner Shirish Patel told Hindustan Times, “These objectives should be part of a private organisation’s report, not in one that is aiming to build amenities for citizens.”
IC Rao, a member of Apli Mumbai, a non-government organisation working with MbPT on the eastern waterfront development, said, “This is Mumbai’s biggest chance in a century to renew itself.”
However, there are stark differences in the report and the draft proposal, with the latter potentially opening up the area for land sharks in a repeat of city losing 600 acres of mill land in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. The MbPT owns 966 hectares of land on the eastern waterfront – four times the size of the mill land.

Pankaj Joshi, a member of the Rani Jadhav committee and executive director of Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) said, “The current plan dilutes the amount of open spaces, amenity standards and the provision for residential land. There is a major emphasis on commercial development for the purpose of profiteering, as opposed to the (2014) committee that looked at commercial zones to build a fund for self-financing the plan.” UDRI is a city-based body of town planners, whose founding trustees were industrialists Ratan Tata, Keshub Mahindra, Nani Palkhiwala, Nana Chudasama and Wadud Khan, and architect Charles Correa.

When HT reviewed the draft proposal and compared it to the Rani Jadhav Committee report, it found that the goals of both documents to be vastly different.

The Jadhav committee worked on a ratio of 30% of the MbPT land to be reserved as public open spaces, while calculating its total area to be 721 hectares. This amounted to 216 hectares of land –the area equivalent to 24 Oval Maidans – for public use. The report said, “At least 30% of the MbPT land will be used for parks, gardens, playgrounds, plazas, recreation grounds, sports facilities and maidans (grounds), which would be open to all.”

In contrast, the MbPT plan offers only 74 hectares of accessible open space, despite calculating with 966.3 hectares of total land (255 hectares more than the 2014 calculation) available for redevelopment. On paper, even though the MbPT draft plan shows 27.06% or 261.47 hectares reserved as open spaces, the clause comes with several riders.

First, a major open space is to be created by reclaiming 93 hectares from the sea near Haji Bunder with a garden abutting it. Another 94 hectares are from private layouts with gardens accessible only to a local group of people. This leaves only 74 hectares or just 7.6% of the entire area (966.30) of which MbPT is the special planning authority, as public open space.

The Jadhav committee plan was summarised by its authors in three words, “Open, Connected and Green,” and it recommended that the last of the city land parcels should be made available for Mumbai residents, and be connected by different transit corridors, with the land developed in an environmentally-sustainable manner. Notably, the Jadhav committee report has still not been accepted or released officially by the government, though it has been circulated online since 2014.

Meher Rafaat, a trustee of an NGO named Nagar, which works to save Mumbai’s open spaces, said, “The plan to reclaim the area that was otherwise to provide the city with essential amenities is a potential disaster. It is surprising that despite existing land being available, the (MbPT) plan talks of development of large parks and open spaces by reclaiming land from the sea.”

Nagar has also written a letter to MbPT stating that open spaces need to be distributed evenly along the region, instead of concentrating them as large parks in one corner of the city. “While large parks make an attractive feature, citizens need accessible open spaces at walkable distances,” the letter reads. Not just the MbPT, even the Brihanumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) plans a New York-like ‘Central Park’ at Backbay in south Mumbai by reclaiming land.

The other stark difference between the 2014 report and the 2018 draft proposal is the use of the waterfront. The Jadhav committee had stated that a 12-km stretch of the eastern waterfront should be opened for public by providing promenades and gardens. The MbPT restricts it to 7km, with a major focus on tourism.

However, Sanjay Bhatia, chairman, MbPT, disagrees that his organisation’s plan eats into open spaces. “With reclamation, we have not suggested anything new,” Bhatia told HT. “The plan was already a part of BMC’s Development Plan 2034. Also, by reclaiming the area, we are giving a larger space to Mumbai residents. We are developing themed gardens in this space,” he added.

To be sure, the Rani Jadhav committee had allocated 40% of the area for mixed-land-use with residential and commercial development. The committee looked at Entrepreneurship Promotion Zones (EPZs), and facilitating small and medium scale industries to rehabilitate the existing semi-skilled workers, taking into consideration that the eastern part of the city is dotted with activities such as ship-breaking, coal handling and recycling metals. It had also emphasised on enunciating clear policies on rehabilitating slum dwellers.

The MbPT plan looks at commercially developing 35% of its land with plans for a central business district, hotels and business offices getting a gross floor space index (FSI) – the ratio of built-up area to the plot – of 4. The plan has no clear strategy on the rehabilitation of 15,000 hutments, the informal settlements dotting the waterfront, or the various tenanted properties.

“If MbPT is planning to create so many jobs through commercial development, then it must also look at providing houses in the same area,” Patel said. MbPT in its plan has reserved 10.76% of the total area for residential development.

UDRI, in its letter to MbPT, had said, “The plan should be a comprehensive mix of residential housing for people from all walks of life. The BMC’s plan to reserve 60 hectares for affordable housing has been overlooked.”

MbPT’s Bhatia, however, said that the residential allocation will mainly look at rehabilitation of slums. “We will be opening the land for the public sector initially, through which we will fund the plans. We will think of a policy for private players only after, say, about five years.”
In its report, the Jadhav committee had invited suggestions and objections from citizens, all of which were appended as an ‘Afterword’ to the report. A major phrase of caution in the suggestions is “no commercial development”. But both the 2014 and the 2018 reports opened up land use for commercial development, with the current plan intensifying it further.

The Jadhav committee report states that the vision for redevelopment should be driven by the principles of ‘intelligent urbanism’ where one of the principles is to provide “opportunities for education, recreation, tourism, employment, business, mobility, health, safety and other basic needs.”

However, the current plan dilutes amenity standards as against the National Building Code (NBC) requirements that were prepared with consultations across the country and taking Indian constraints into account, experts such as Joshi point out. An analysis by UDRI by extrapolating the data on the NBC guidelines shows that close to 137 hectares of MbPT land needs to be reserved for social amenities, when only 31 hectares have been reserved.

A senior planner from MbPT, however, said, “We are providing huge open spaces for Mumbaikars and recreation facilities for tourists also. Most of the land has now been encroached and in other cases, the leases have expired. We will follow the due process of law in each case.”

Another analysis, this time by Patel, shows that against NBC’s requirement of 1,800 square meters per 1,000 population, MbPT will provide less than half of that – 822 square metres. “This is the greatest opportunity for Mumbai to restore the balance of amenities that is missing from the rest of the city. Instead of under-providing amenities, MbPT should over-provide in one of the last remaining parcels for the city’s larger good,” Patel said.

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