Government's New Land Plans Will Kill Mumbai

Mumbai is a unique city on the world map. Probably the only city to have such a large population coexist with such rich biodiversity including forests, salt pan lands rich with salt and minerals, beaches on one coast and a dockyard on the other, all within its city limits, even as its skyline gets taller with rapid urbanisation. And a state government keen to monetise it all! 

What will "monetising" Mumbai's open spaces bring? Global warming and the dangers of environmental destruction are a danger way closer than acknowledged in the US Presidential debates.

Here's how it goes.

The centre and state government are actively considering opening up of salt pan lands for housing. Salt pan lands - flat expanses - have traditionally been no-development zones and massive open spaces without any construction. Their use by builders, marketed as "affordable housing" (one wonders affordable for whom), would only destroy the ecological balance that this space maintains for our coastlines.

In 2007, large areas of land were freed for builders by repealing the Urban Land Ceiling Act. It was said that affordable housing would be created and Mumbai would get a revenue of Rs 2,000 crores. Not a single affordable house was made, not a single penny came to Mumbai.

Such would be the fate of these salt pan lands! 

Recently a committee has been formed to "monetise" 1,800-odd acres on Mumbai's east coast, currently under the Mumbai (Bombay) Port Trust (BPT), the navy, and partly, the junkyard. The BPT and the Junkyard is run by the Union Ministry for Shipping, while the Naval Areas are governed by the Ministry of Defence.

Goes without saying that the Naval Areas should not be touched. But no city like Mumbai anywhere in the world has a junkyard that makes the coast so toxic.

To get rid of the Bombay Port Trust, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust was formed across the coast. The BPT, funnily enough, still exists for its landholding, rather than its utility as a dockyard.

The east coast of Mumbai consists of rail-lines and a road network that can be well used with beautiful open spaces. Does an open space as a promenade without any commercial activity or without it being owned by builders have no value? Can't the entire land be made into a simple, beautiful green tract of land that enables Mumbaikars to see the sun rise?

It's 1,800-odd acres of monetising! 

To put it in perspective, the land size opening up to "monetise" now, being 1,200 acres, is three times the size of all Mill Lands in Mumbai, and can create 50 Oval Maidans and 8 times the waterfront promenade available at Marine Drive! 

No wonder the BPT won't hand over its land-holding in Mumbai to the city's local council, and rather prefers to keep it with itself to "monetise" it. Well, now, the government is about to declare the Arabian Sea on the east coast of Mumbai as a "creek" to facilitate the need of the builders on the east coast. 

I'm guessing that soon the Arabian Sea between India and the African mainland will be called a bay! 

Here's why the fear is valid.

The Metro work that has begun under its own Act, has the power to displace people, nature and open spaces. It will take up Colaba Woods, Azad Maidan (where thousands of boys and girls play and is a ground for nurturing cricketers), displace the people of Girgaon against their wish, and more importantly thereafter, create a Metro car shed at Aarey in the forest. A private golf course near it has been excused along with another location.

The Environmental Impact Report mentions that Aarey has no wildlife left apart from mice. The head of this project states that Aarey isn't a forest - ignoring the obvious fact that there are tonnes of species in the Aarey and some endemic and wild leopards too (clicked by renowned photographers of National Geographic Magazine).

I'm guessing the forest will be maintained with a forest-themed station and cafe, painted by the Metro authorities.

I wouldn't be surprised if the lease of the 226-acres open space at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse is renewed with those who have earlier proposed and tried to build a 7-star private hotel, heliport and much more there.

It is one thing that the government tries to reduce the importance and independence of Mumbai economically by shifting out the likes of certain recently-proposed international centres and the offices of various government organisations.

It is one thing that the government tries to reduce the political independence of Mumbai by trying to dictate things to the local self body - including horrible white streetlights at Mumbai's prime and pride-of-place Marine Drive, the change surrounded by allegations of murky dealings (changing thousands of lights from those that illuminate Mumbai to make it glow to white ones that claim to reduce power consumption, while the government destroys the environment, doesn't help the city much). 

But killing Mumbai environmentally in its first two years of being in government without understanding the city, isn't just going to limit to Mumbai itself, it will affect our globe.

And I hope none of us will take it lying down! 

We hope that the Chief Minister will take note of the concern, not just voiced by me, but as one who will create sustainable and appropriate development as a model for Maharashtra and its capital, the city of Mumbai. 

We cannot run a government that is so unaware of the global and local impact of climate change, and a rising sea level that will not be healed by hailing and retweeting international treaties and photo-ops, but by truly acting on it!

(Aaditya Thackeray is the president of Yuva Sena, the youth wing of Shiv Sena)

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