Other cities will do well not to emulate Mumbai in preparing their long-term development plans (DPs). As was the case in Mumbai's previous 20-year plan, the new blueprint from 2014-2034 is already a draft without undergoing any of the checks and balances necessary for such a document to convey anything significant. Like its predecessor, it suffers the infirmity of taking so long to prepare that the baseline data it uses are hopelessly out of date.

At present, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the biggest in the country, with an annual budget of Rs 27,578 crore exceeding that of several states, seems to be merely going through the motions of undertaking this task. It is just a pro-forma exercise even though, as in many other activities it engages in nowadays, it employs the services of a foreign consultant.

Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA in Delhi, Vinod Kumar Binny, who has not been given a place in the Delhi cabinet, shot to fame primarily by creating AAP's "Mohalla Sabha" which promises citizens a greater say in development works. But it is only belatedly, when the year of initiation is literally days away, that the BMC has decided to involve citizens' groups in the preparation.

It goes without saying that these groups, firstly, have a far better idea of what needs to be done to make the city a better place. As Mumbai's and one of India's most eminent architects and planners, Charles Correa, often says, "Mumbai is a wonderful city but a terrible place." Secondly, these non-governmental groups alone have the capacity to engage with people's associations right down to the grassroots, including slum dwellers - who, incidentally, form the majority of the 12 million-plus population.

The corporation now plans to set up expert groups comprising planners and NGOs, based on their core expertise. These include the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Urban Design Research Institute, the NGO Yuva and the Kamla Raheja College of Architecture. The issues to be deliberated upon include housing, health, education, slum settlements, water, solid waste, sanitation and urban design. Notably, it has also approached the Stree Mukti Sanghatana, which has done sterling work in involving the poorest of poor women to collect and recycle urban solid waste. In addition, there will be meetings held at the ward level to consult citizens for their views.

Room to breathe

In the past, experts have criticized the BMC for being far too wedded to real estate interests in the plan. They have also questioned why the BMC, after receiving some feedback, has pointedly refused to incorporate these in the plan. As has been demonstrated so many times in public hearings on the environmental impact of large infrastructure projects like the now-iconic Rs 1,600-crore Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the authorities merely pay lip-service to complying with the Union Environment Ministry's obligatory pre-condition requiring clearance for a project, following the literal diktats of the law rather than the spirit.

Vigilant activists and architects like P K Das, who mapped the entire amount of open space in his “Open Mumbai” exhibition last year, put the area of the city proper closer to 480 sq km. Thus with 47 sq km, the proportion of open space, along with other amenities, will be less than one-tenth.

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Perhaps the most controversial clauses in the development plan relate to open space. Mumbai surely tops the world's list of mega cities with the least such space barely a little over 1 sq m per person. Not surprisingly, residents often wonder whether Mumbaikars will evolve into a different human species, rather like chickens which are fed by a conveyor belt in modern poultry farms and never use their wings during their hapless lives and sometimes suffer the ignominy of not even being able to flap them.

Now, in a 280-page preparatory draft for the Development Plan, the BMC with Group SCE India Ltd, a full subsidiary of the French consulting firm EGIS Geoplan, has stated that almost 47 sq km - over a tenth of the area of Greater Mumbai which it estimates at 458 sq km - should be opened up for health, education, social amenities and open space. To begin with, vigilant activists and architects like P.K. Das, who mapped the entire amount of open space in his "Open Mumbai" exhibition put up by the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre last year, put the area of the city proper closer to 480 sq km, once creeks, mangroves and wetlands are taken into account. Thus with 47 sq km, the proportion of open space, along with other amenities, will be less than one-tenth.

Ashutosh Limaye, head, Research and Real Estate Intelligence Service, Jones Lang LaSalle India, a global real estate consultancy firm, said in a 2011 report, "What I found more disturbing was the non-utilisation of Mumbai's natural gifts. An open western coastline of 35 km and a natural harbour on its eastern coast is kept away from people, with less than 10 organised access areas to the sea. With hardly any water sports and occasional water front parks, the Arabian Sea is reduced to a mute spectator [sic] for Mumbaikars." The firm adds that the 110 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park - Mumbai is unique in the world in having such an amenity right in its midst, a little less than a quarter of its area - is not all that accessible by citizens.

The draft development plan also says that the open space per inhabitant should be doubled to 2 sq m per person over the next 20 years, which is still far too abysmal. Space for "medical amenities" should similarly grow from 0.26 sq m per person to 0.39 sq m. For markets, fire brigade stations, burial grounds and public halls, the target in 2034 is 0.26 sq m. The total space required for all such amenities is 2,357 hectares.

The provision for open space, which is a vital requirement for any city's well being, has come in for stringent criticism. According to Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), this amounts to a defeatist attitude when the official norms are 10-12 sq m per person. According to Jones Lang LaSalle, Mumbai pales in comparison with Delhi, which has 15 sq m per person (UDRI puts it at only a third as much, but this still towers over the commercial capital). Bangalore has 6.4 sq m per capita, while Le Corbusier's planned city, Chandigarh, has a full third of its area open. Globally, Mumbai is worse off than even the world's most populous mega city Tokyo, as well as much below New York with its Central Park, and is dismally below the United Nations Food and Agriculture norm of 9 sq m per capita per person.

A caveat is in order. Every statistic regarding cities pertains to its area, which can mean different things to different people. Thus New York straddles 1,214 sq km, Hong Kong 1,068, Singapore 714 and Tokyo 621. While this shows Mumbai in a slightly better light, there is no getting away from its atrocious scarcity of open space by any reckoning. Mumbai is four times more densely populated (measured by the number of people per sq km) than Singapore, while the 2 sq m target is one-sixth of the current space in the sovereign city state.

There are also national standards which are being ignored in Mumbai. Thus the Union Urban Affairs Ministry's 1996 Urban Development Plan Formulation and Implementation guidelines as well as the Delhi Development Authority norms prescribe 10 sq m per capita and 4 sq m respectively. There is no question that even the lower norm for Delhi is twice the goal that Mumbai has set for itself for 2034.

The BMC report has announced that it was proposing to set up a "public land pool" in each municipal ward. This would not be designated for a specific use like playgrounds or schools. However, experts have slammed this proposal in the light of the corrupt practices followed by municipal and state government officials, aided and abetted by politicians, in getting plots "dereserved".

Even another proposal, which is the "exaction of land" for public purposes by granting higher floor-space index or FSI, is unlikely to find favour with activists because, once again, it opens the door to corrupt practices. There is no alternative but for the DP to list out specific areas reserved for amenities which are designated, so that the scope for corruption is reduced.

One can only hope that with consultations with academic and activist bodies, followed by public hearings, the BMC will open the door for some out-of-the-box solutions to enhancing open space in Mumbai. An excellent example is the proposed development by citizens of the Irla nullah which runs through the Kaifi Azmi park and mangroves in the western suburb of Juhu-Vile Parle. By providing walking and cycling tracks along this nullah, instead of concreting it over, activist Das hopes to provide a much-needed amenity, far from the maddening traffic.

This May, Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte stopped a builder from putting a slab over a strip of this nullah in order to initiate a slum rehabilitation scheme. This was only done after protests by the NGO Save Open Spaces in Juhu and intervention by Das. Eternal vigilance, it is self-evident, is the price one has to pay to protect the few open spaces that the city enjoys. The development plan should go much further and examine how areas including the coast and forests can be better protected so as to serve as a vital lung for citizens who are gasping for breath today.