Open Spaces for a greener and healthier Mumbai

A citizen of Mumbai gets 1.95 square meters per person of open space against the international standard of 11 square meters per person” – Pankaj Joshi, Urban Development and Research Institute

 

The theme for this year’s World Health Day is “Urbanization and Health”. With this in mind, and  the World Health Organization’s campaign – 1000 cities, 1000 lives – that aims to highlight the importance of promoting health in urban settings, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) decided to focus this day on public spaces that are available to the people of Mumbai. To this end, ORF conducted an interactive demonstration of the noble art of Karate on Marine Drive on the morning of April 7th for 90 minutes as well as a afternoon roundtable session on “Open and green spaces for a healthier Mumbai”.

To embark on these events, Maulik Mavani an associate fellow at ORF, along with his colleague Omkar Phalke demonstrated karate maneuvers to healthy Mumbaiikars outside Hotel Marine Plaza the morning of April 7th. Their theatrics attracted quite a crowd of passerby’s’, which included people who jog/walk/run on Marine Drive every morning, tourists, people commuting to work, as well as leisurely passerbys’. Mr. Swadesh Kshatriya, Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner noted the event during his regular morning jog on Marine Drive and appreciated this initiative stating the ‘importance of creating awareness among common people on the health enhancing potential of open and green spaces.’ Maulik and Omkar demonstrated to the crowd two sets of performances, the kata which is a choreographical set of movements against imaginary opponents and the sparring (also known as kumite in Japanese) which is a more interactive and competitive set between two opponents. Maulik stated that the objective for this morning’s event is two-fold: “to promote open spaces for physical activity to enhance physical and mental health; and to demonstrate martial arts as a sport as well as an art giving recognition to martial arts in India.

Following the successful initiative taken forth that morning, the roundtable session kicked off the same afternoon with an introduction by ORF Chairman Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni which was then followed by rounds of presentation by participants to the event. Issues’ that were discussed at this event highlighted the following:

  • Deleterious effects of the lack of clean air to the citizens of Mumbai;
  • Lack of/dwindling of open and green areas/trees within the confines of Mumbai
  • Disdain for redevelopment of public spaces; and
  • Barricading/fencing of public spaces depriving people of their entitlement to enjoy these confines.

 

Deleterious effects of the lack of clean air to the citizens of Mumbai
ORF’s Research Fellow Rishi Aggarwal was the first to jumpstart the round of presentations by highlighting the importance of open spaces to individual and community health. He cited the hazardous effects to the lives of Mumbaiikars that are all courtesy of the air we breathe in: asthma, bronchitis, skin and digestive disorders, tinnitus and migraines. The list was endless and continued to include mental stress and obesity as a result of unhealthy eating habits, claustrophobia from congested living conditions especially in slum areas, ineffective public sanitation causing greater risk of catching infections, viruses and diseases, mental stress of fast paced urban life, lack of access to sports facilities and physical exercise, inability to exercise outdoors, especially impeding fitness in old age, and poor physical fitness resulting in weaker immunity. This is the scary reality that many people face within Mumbai. Everyday we compete with one another in every aspect of our lives – be it for space, be it at our jobs, at home – basically in just about everything in our daily lives.

Lack of / dwindling of open and green areas / trees within the confines of Mumbai
At present there is only 0.9 hectares of open space per 1000 people in Mumbai. Furthermore, western and eastern residents within the confines of Mumbai have very few spaces that are open to the public for its utilization. These residents have only malls and multiplexes, which cannot fit, within the classification of open public spaces.  This paltry amount cannot suffice to the demands of the growing population and the pressure that this population is already putting on the few open areas allotted to the people for public use.
Mr. P.K. Das of Mumbai Waterfronts Center has launched the ‘Mumbai on two feet’ project in Juhu that aims to connect the area’s disparate open spaces by walking and cycling on a 5-km path over the Irla nallah at the same time creating awareness amongst people about what is available to them for their utilization.  He stated that the lack of government’s attention to open spaces could be attributed mainly to the fact that these spaces do not give a huge turnover to the government.

Mr. Krishna Tiwari, of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) spoke of the depletion of natural resources in city forests. This problem has been caused by local level and indigenous settlers that are responsible for clearing vast tracts of land violating the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Moreover, according to the Forest Rights Act 2006-07, indigenous people such as Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers will be entitled for four acres of land. Any tribal family who is cultivating prior to 13th December 2005 will receive the title to that land, and if there is no cultivation on that land they will not get any title. Also if they are cultivating more than 4 ha without documentation or a dispute, they will receive title for only 4ha of land. If they file the claim to the land, then 52,000 acres of the forest land will be lost if their petition for land goes through. Nearly 45% of the open spaces in Mumbai are partially or wholly occupied. Everyone who attended the roundtable agreed the need to push for the preservation of open spaces and prevention of further depletion of natural habitats within the city.

Disdain for redevelopment of public spaces
Discontent amongst the participants of the event was expressed at the issue of redevelopment projects that provide a huge turnover to the city and private developers who take up these projects to replace private/commercial establishments in many public areas. The debilitating effect of depleting the city of this resource is a long-term and permanent loss the civic authority doesn’t realize.

Ms. Hutokshi Rustomfram of Save Rani Bagh Committee took to this discussion with a lot of vigor and passion highlighting the beautiful features of one of the largest and oldest green spaces in Mumbai – Rani Bagh. The park boasts of 3184 trees with over 200 species, being the largest species diversity in the city, with 62% of its total area comprising botanical gardens. But this park is now sadly under plans for redevelopment to turn it into an international zoo that was proposed by the BMC in 2007 appropriating Rs. 450 crore for its makeover at the time. The concern she expressed was shared by many that were present for the roundtable is that by robbing the park of many of its natural beauties by planting 63 botanical gardens and 18 animal enclosures, the civic body is depriving Mumbaiikars of the preservation of one of its oldest and largest parks. State environment secretary Ms. Valsa Nair Singh expressed her concern to the issue of Ms Rustomfram stating that this matter had not reached her table yet. She further stated that “the government would never allow any redevelopment project that will replace an area of green cover with a concrete jungle.”

 
Barricading/fencing of public spaces depriving people of their entitlement to enjoy these confines
Participants discussed the issue of fencing of open spaces which many agreed should be kept to a minimal. Mr. Pankaj Joshi of UDRI is of the opinion that the cordonisation, privatization and barricading of these spaces need to be done away with. Taking the example of Shivaji Park, Mr. Ashok Ravat, Shivaji Park Active Locality Management (ALM) Co-ordinator, noted that being one of the bigger public spaces in India that can accommodate a huge crowd within its ground, the Park was open to people from all four sides. But now with a budget of Rs. 2 Crore allocated to 8 meter walls that will be built around the park to be constructed by May 1st, entry into the park will now be limited to two sides only. The purpose of blocking entrance to the ground boggled the mind of many during the roundtable since the park functions as a recreational ground and is visited daily by residents, tourists and others who want to enjoy the very few vast expansive spaces that the city has left for its residents. Furthermore, many other open spaces, as expressed by Mr. Krishna Tiwari, were being encroached upon by clubs that were depriving the public of its usage.

 
Initiatives being taken:  

  • Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in India and the Government of Maharashtra has been making a concerted effort to reduce pollution in Mumbai, Pune and Solapur. NEERI is conducting a three year study on the constituents of air pollution. This study will present evidence based on which the civic authorities and the state will be able to formulate effective policies for a cleaner environment based in the evidence that is presented.
  • Ms. Valsa Nair Singh expressly stated that her division within the ministry started the Environmental Health Research Initiative to study three to four polluted areas in Mumbai that will aid them in drawing government health policies for such polluted areas.
  • Mr. Rokade, Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) of Gardens and Security, expressed concern over the reduction of green spaces in the city and talked about the depleting quality of air causing trees that are planted along pavements, to be killed. At present, there are 25 lakh trees in Mumbai excluding those present at the Raj Bhawan and at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. As per its initiative to maintain the city’s trees, the BMC is planning a tree bank whereby trees will be planted along the city and at the airport.

Some successful stories:

  • Mr. Bapu Shri Rane of Deonar Garden briefly spoke of his efforts toward the preservation and beautification of this public space. “We’ve made a garden flourish on the bank of a nallah where several authorities claimed that even grass wouldn’t grow. Today, we have about 110 species of trees, some of which one cannot find even in Veermata Jijabai Udyan (Rani Baug). Mr. Rokade’s claim of a rewarding scheme of the BMC (some monetary amount to those individuals or community groups that contribute by establishing and maintaining gardens), came as a surprise to us as it has been several years since we’ve asked authorities to grant some funds/rewards or even recognition. When we went to certain authorities to acquire permission to get raw material and go ahead with the planting process, we were told to first rake up credible (monetary) balance. We said that once we (through loans) set up the garden, we will get recognition and funds. But we’re in a fix, with the Garden authorities delay in recognizing our garden under one of the eligible (for reward/grant) categories.” He urged the DMC to visit their garden and expedite the process. A school head-master who accompanied Bapu Shri Rane, described how they had jointly planted several trees in their school and how they “literally celebrated the birthday of each tree” in the complex. He praised Bapu Shri Rane for his work at the Deonar garden and requested those present to make a visit.
  • Dayanand Jadhav from Triratna Prerna Mandal (TPM) basically spoke of an erstwhile plot where several antisocial activities took place. It was then that TPM took up the initiative and set up a playground where several sports are played today and where there’s open access to all strata of society. What this playground achieved, Mr. Jadhav said, is that those children, whose routines were restricted to videogames and TV shows, are today enjoying the playground…”and just watching them enjoying the dust gives us immense pleasure today.” To this, Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni added that this area of open space that is now available to children for all activities has also been a cause for their increased grades and better performance in school by providing them with the space that they previously lacked where they could study.

Reality
At present, the MCGM appropriates only 0.14% of its budget to public spaces. Moreover, there are no websites by the MCGM or any other local governmental agency that mentions open spaces in Mumbai. There is an absence of a nodal agency which has an overarching influence on the open health spaces within the city. The question that comes to mind here is that why the BMC isn’t doing its part in informing people about the availability and use of these open spaces.

 Moreover, the point to be noted here is that the responsibility to protect our environment is for all and it should not be only citizens groups that bring attention to these issues. The government must be vigilant and realize the damage that lack of open and green spaces cause to the air in which the people of Mumbai are to breathe.  On the other hand, it is the duty of the citizens as well to take care of these open spaces that have been provided by the government and to take efforts to prevent its depletion. A public good is a free good for the benefit and enjoyment of society at large and to maintain its continued existence; we – the government, civil society and ordinary citizens – need to make a concerted effort toward its maintenance.

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