By Somali K Chakrabarti
Standing by the open window railing on my room, as I sip my morning tea looking at the coconuts swinging from the tree at a stone’s throw, I struggle each day to reconcile with how the view has changed over the last two years.
The open space on both sides, where there used to be a nursery and a school playground is now covered up with high-rise flats that are in the last stage of construction. In place of the variety of plants and flowers in the nursery, stands a burly concrete mixer humming throughout the day. Scaffoldings along the walls of buildings and reinforcement rods jutting out of the columns from the roof of an under-construction parking lot make an unseemly sight.
I feel let down and so do the other residents of the building. But do we complain? Not much!
Financial wisdom tells us that with the land prices having appreciated more than 5 times, we should not be complaining. Likewise, constructing high rise buildings on a prime property makes more commercial sense for builder; so what if the land was initially earmarked for a school playground and a park.
Besides enjoying the facility of a plush club house with a well equipped gym and swimming pool, residents also get the privilege of a view into the interiors of other flats from their houses.
As for environmental impact or disaster planning, nobody really seems to care. With a single main exit, and a small by lane through which a car can barely pass, the colony which houses more than 6000 residents is like a death trap in case of any emergency situation.
This is the story of a relatively upwardly mobile colony near the scenic Powai Lake in Powai. But, this is not a one off story!
The story repeats itself all over Mumbai. The island city that is naturally endowed with a beautiful topography and a hilly backdrop within vicinity suffers hugely from improper or missing Town Planning.
Open spaces in Mumbai are disappearing
With the real estate burgeoning, builders are razing down the hills, covering up open spaces and fast depleting the city of its natural beauty. The naturally green Mumbai is turning grey. Odd shaped glass and steel high rises, aimed at giving the city a Star Trek inspired futuristic look stand out like eye sores protruding from Mumbai’s skyline.
With a population density that is amongst the highest in the world, Mumbai – home to more than 20 million people seems bursting at the seam. It massively reels under the pressure of rampant construction, and yet lacks sufficient infrastructure. The lack of open spaces in most of the suburbs gives a claustrophobic feel.
As compared with London where the percentage of public green space is around 40%, Mumbai has an green space of only 2.5%, lower than even Tokyo and Shanghai. [i] On an average it amounts to around 2 square metres of open space per person or less. [ii]
Within every 10 kms, you’ll find a shopping mall, maybe two, but the roads are devoid of proper usable footpaths. Getting some open unobstructed space to walk is a rarity and a luxury in most parts of the city. Land marked for parks is being used to construct buildings and every inch of open space is being nibbled upon. Mega construction projects are started without due consideration to develop the infrastructure required to support the usage of high rise buildings and shopping complexes.
This is in sharp contrast to cities around the world, where developers have to negotiate with the local government and convince them on how they would help augment the surrounding infrastructure before sanctions are given for mega construction projects.
Builders of fancy apartments promise you the sky with a magnificent view, but what they conveniently forget to tell you is that the moment you step out you’ll either be stuck or you’ll have an experience equivalent to travelling through the craters of the moon within the next 15 minutes. The imported granite and marble lined lobbies are in sharp contrast to the potholed roads that are repaired before every monsoon, only to be damaged by the very first showers.
Mumbai vs Shanghai is still a distant dream
Five years back, the then Chief Minister of Mumbai had sold a dream of turning Mumbai into Shanghai. But till date, with the infrastructure development failing to keep pace with the increase in population and traffic, the city is nowhere close to Shanghai, either in terms of planned infrastructure or cleanliness or in terms of civic amenities.
The congestion on roads has been eased to some extent, with some infrastructure projects such as Monorail track between Chembur and Wadala, 1st phase of Metro’s, Sahar Elevated Road connecting Western Express Highway to International Airport, T2 terminal of the Mumbai International Airport, Santacruz-Chembur Link Road project, between the Eastern and Western Express Highway and Milan Rail over Bridge from Santacruz to Western Express Highway and 17 km stretch of Eastern Freeway becoming functional in 2014.
However, the biggest challenge still lies in the fact that any infrastructure project once started take years to complete. The construction of the Monorail track had begun in 2009 and it took 5 years to become operational in 2014. Likewise the 1st phase of Metro began in 2008, and it was 6 years before it became operational between Versova and Ghatkopar.
The lack of open green spaces – playgrounds and parks and rampant cutting of forests call for attention, as do the ill designed and ill maintained footpaths. A BMC Report in 2013 proposing diverse use of open spaces raised apprehensions if the intention was to allow for privatization of open spaces.[iii]
Better Zoning laws to regulate building size, population density and the way land is used, are needed to ensure that whatever few remaining green spaces are left are not encroached upon. A more systematic approach to urban landscaping and environment improvement facilities like well maintained public parks, gardens and landscapes would provide a long-term return to the society on a sustainable basis.
Shanghai may be a far cry, but a naturally beautiful city, which is also India’s commercial and industrial hub, surely deserves to planned and developed better.
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[i] World Culture Report [http://www.worldcitiescultureforum.com/cities/mumbai]
[ii] [iii] Hindustan Times article [http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/mumbai/mumbai-bmc-may-lower-amount-of-open-space-per-person/article1-1152962.aspx]