Sucheta Dalal :Parcelling off Mumbai's public spaces
Sucheta Dalal

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Parcelling off Mumbai's public spaces  

Jul 3, 2006

Mumbai, the congested megalopolis that commands the highest realty tariffs in the country and remains in the grip of a cabal of builder, financiers, industrialists and politicians, seems set for further exploitation. Over the last few years, this unholy nexus has hit upon the wonderful strategy of parcelling off plots of precious public property to private companies under the guise of modernisation and development.


The first in this long stream of actions was the dubious change in Development Control in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. This shady pre-election order allowed mill owners to sell or develop mill land by parting with considerably less than 10% of the area for public use and low income housing, instead of the one-third allocation proposed under earlier development plans. The matter became subject of a public interest litigation, where a battery of expensive lawyers successfully argued the mill owners’ case.


The development mantra as an excuse for gobbling up public space has gathered further momentum in the last five years and every success at land grabbing has further emboldened the builder-industrialist-politician cartel.


Such dubious successes include the decision to hand over the Mumbai-Pune Expressway to a private builder after first killing its viability. This was done by dropping the software city development and refusing to permit it to generate revenue by renting advertising space (this has now been dubiously handed over the private land owners alongside the Expressway) or developing high quality food courts and facilities that could act as a magnet for increasing recreational traffic.


While the Expressway was not allowed to subsidise costs through development, exactly the opposite was permitted for the sole patch of public parking space at the impossibly-crowded office area of Nariman Point. Here, the Piramal group was allowed to take over public space and build a mall and a multiplex in order to subsidise a multi-storeyed parking tower.


It has constructed an ill-designed facility with a narrow, winding path to the parking tower that does not allow large vehicles and SUVs to enter; its high parking charges also make a mockery of the cross subsidy plan. The consequence: shoppers and moviegoers have only added to the traffic congestion and pollution by idling and parking on the crowded road while seven floors of the eight-level parking are scandalously empty.


A third case, that has now been taken to court by Medha Patkar, relates to the glitzy Atria Mall, allowed to be set up at Worli on what is allegedly a plot reserved for housing. There have been open allegations about this plot having been quietly cleared because of the financial interest of a powerful Sena politician.


Similarly, the Pheonix Mill in the Lower Parel area is another piece of land that is continuously given clearances for new development. Staring with a bowling alley, a few restaurants and a single mall, it is now an unbearably crowded and noisy mess comprising three separate malls, scores of restaurants and is still in the process of constructing two large parking towers, more shopping and a six-screen multiplex.


The handkerchief-size open space is also dotted with illegal food carts, which policemen and municipal workers visit regularly to collect bribes. What makes Pheonix Mills interesting is that neither the stream of government officials nor the usually aggressive activists have ever voiced any protest at its non-stop development.


Another attempt to parcel out public land for a song is the development of the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market, next to the historic Crawford Market. In this case, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation planned to allow a builder to develop a multi-storeyed market with a Floor Space Index of 4 in exchange for rehabilitating occupants of existing sheds. In effect, for a few crore rupees saved, the BMC was willing to part with a few hundred crore rupees of profit for the builder.


The move has run into rough weather at the moment, but it is safe to bet that the plan will be revived unless there is strong and continuous public pressure.


The latest outrage is a proposal to sell 30% of the space available at sprawling and highly coveted Bus Stations of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking all over Mumbai. This space will ostensibly be used for parking, shopping centres, eateries and wedding halls. After one large parking facility at Nariman Point has already vanished into private hands without any public benefit or revenue, the government wants to repeat the same strategy with the Bus Stations.


This is evident from the fact that the BEST flatly refused parking facilities for the modern taxi fleet planned by Fulora Foundation only recently. BEST’s bus stations belong to the public and must be developed for the greater public good. In the last two decades the municipal corporation has failed to build a single parking tower despite the dramatic increase in traffic density. Instead, it has usurped public roads and pavements to create paid-parking facilities that only allow private contractors to rip off people.


By creating paid, multi-level parking at bus-stations, the BEST would speed up traffic movement and clear pavements for pedestrians while earning additional revenue. It can also increase income by offering maintenance facilities to private vehicles.


The response to the BEST proposal on various e-groups suggests that there is a lot of outrage about its plans, but unless people wake up and turn into vigilantes the process of transferring public wealth into private hands will continue unchecked with no addition to basic amenities or revenue accretion to the exchequer. There are already rumours that the government is quietly working at selling off the Worli Dairy which occupies an extremely valuable sea-front property in mid-Mumbai.


-- Sucheta Dalal