Can the city's housing needs be met while preserving spaces for recreation and green cover?
In what will become a landmark decision influencing future commercialisation of old mill land in Mumbai, the Supreme Court on Tuesday set aside a Bombay High Court ruling that had held the sale of surplus land of the National Textile Corporation to be contrary to the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) scheme. The apex court, thus, vindicated the sale of surplus land of several mills by the NTC in the heart of the city saying that the changes made in the rules for the development of the mill land were constitutionally valid. The Bombay Environmental Action Group, an NGO, had filed a writ petition before the High Court last October alleging that the sale was in violation of rules. It had contented that surplus land of five mills were sold in violation of the Development Control Rule 58. The apex court bench, however, has now held that the developmental plans were in conformity with the BIFR scheme.
The Supreme Court ruling will clearly divide opinion in the city, with citizens worried over the rapid deterioration of the fragile environment and ecosystem that has gone on for the last three decades or more. But the city has been over the same period expanding exponentially with its economic landscape shifting away from manufacturing to services. As a result and especially since the mid-1980s after the protracted textile strikes and lockouts of the previous years the skill levels and the purchasing power of the newer inhabitants moved up. This led to a growing demand for upscale housing that was met only by converting the little land available into so-called `lifestyle' housing projects. The trouble was that many of them violated environmental norms, often in connivance with civic officials. With demand continuing to outstrip supply, the next best thing to look at were the large spaces owned by textile mills that had long shut.
The NTC sale and the court orders have brought to the forefront three basic issues about the land usage in Mumbai. One, the absence of a clear policy on how the city's expanding housing needs should be met while preserving spaces for recreation and green cover. Second, the unwillingness of State governments to adumbrate a clear and transparent policy on the future of the city's mills and the twin needs of housing and environmental protection. Though there are rules to ensure open spaces and low-cost housing the Development Control Rule 58, which lays down a one-third sharing basis, is a good example they have been given short shrift by builders and the State government. While welcoming the Supreme Court ruling, the city can only look with askance at what that will mean for its future generations in this narrow island rapidly losing its open and green spaces to breathe in.