Privatisation Vs Public Access: BMC's New Open Spaces Policy Lacks Transparency and Public Involvement
Mohammed Afzal 18 May 2023
Recently, in a general body meeting between Maharashtra chief minister (CM) Eknath Shinde, BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC), civic officials and elected representatives, a new policy for the management of open spaces was discussed and the same is scheduled to be finalised by the end of this month. Concerned citizens have opposed the move, as it will likely put the onus of maintenance of public parks and grounds on private parties. 
The matter has been pending for a decade when citizens had earlier opposed the move that allows private parties to maintain a public park or ground under the 'caretaker' policy for a maximum period of 30 years. Facing opposition from concerned citizens and activists, the proposal at that time was stayed by former CM Devendra Fadnavis and an initiative to formulate a new policy was being considered. While there has been no action on it since then, it seems that a new policy is now being rushed through, without public consultation. 
While an interim policy is presently in place, the upcoming policy will mandate all parties—non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private organisations, to maintain open spaces for a period of only 11 months, while adopting gardens for five years, as long as they adhere to BMC's rules, including non-discriminatory access to all citizens, without charging entry fees.
As per information that is publicly available, to date, BMC has reclaimed 187 of the 216 open spaces in Mumbai and 29 others are yet in the possession of adoptees. It is believed that BMC will be disallowing commercial or political activities in the public open spaces. Under the interim policy, interested parties will have to apply to BMC to adopt an open space and will have to strictly adhere to BMC's conditions. The interested parties wanting to maintain the open space will have to apply to a ward-level committee – comprising civic officials – that will scrutinise their eligibility and allot the spaces accordingly. 
The BMC, however, is entitled to take back the plots at any given point in time without any notice. Moreover, the entities will have to ensure that no construction is carried out on these plots and will lose the plots to BMC if they fail to do so. The entities will have to put up boards informing citizens that the open space is accessible to all people and is free of charge.
As activists, we strongly condemn passing the policy without public discussion or debate in the House or calling for public opinion. It's a one-sided decision forced on the citizens of Maharashtra and the needs to be contested by one and all. A policy that is being finalised without involving all stakeholders should indeed not be acceptable and should be opposed outright. This is totally undemocratic and unconstitutional. Will this open spaces policy not give back-door entry to politicians to maintain open spaces?
As per an Observer Research Foundation's (ORF) report, not even half of the city's 3,780 acres of open spaces belong to the civic body, which has only 1,322 acres. Further, 17% or 664 acres of the spaces are exclusively reserved for the elite. These areas are inaccessible due to restricted entries for clubs and gymkhanas situated on them. They also include the open spaces given to politicians under BMC's much-criticised caretaker policy in the early 1990s. The remaining 2,458 acres belong to other authorities such as the collector, Mumbai Port Trust, and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA).
The report has suggested a slew of measures that need to be taken by the BMC while drafting a new open spaces policy, one of which is having a better acquisition policy and trying out the public-private partnership (PPP) model. Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis said this measure should be thought about and have people's participation, so that citizens can be allowed to run open spaces.
Public open spaces serve the purpose of lungs for the city and impose a much-needed balance between the built and open environment, says the revised draft development plan-2034 (RDDP-34) for Mumbai. Sadly, this realisation seems to be only on paper. Given the severe lack of public open spaces (POS) or, to put it differently, spaces to breathe, the city lacks enough healthy options for family outings. The Mumbai Zoo was overflowing with over 33,000 visitors so much so that it had to close its gates at one point during the day.
As per the BMC's environment status report (2020-21), though the city has 291 gardens and parks, 475 recreational grounds and 355 playgrounds, the city continues to have an abysmally low per capita open space of 1.24sqm (square metres).
With the city growing vertically and multi-storied skyscrapers becoming the norm, the need for breathing spaces has become so acute that desperate Mumbaikars seek to escape to open spaces like beaches and resorts outside Mumbai whenever they can. Every weekend or holiday coming together tends to be an opportunity to rush out of the city limits to unwind, relax, and take a deep breath of fresh air. Actually, humankind has become an enemy of the environment. Trees are being cut, and open space shortage is why we see too many lung-related diseases.
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