Hardly a day passes in Mumbai without a disclosure about a new scam relating to the grabbing of land by unscrupulous builders, in collusion with state government and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials. Only recently, the media exposed how 5000 square metres of land belonging to the Aarey Milk Colony is being sought to be converted into a residential area, part of which will be a cemetery. Religion, it seems, is a convenient fig-leaf for such blatant conversion of land use. Ostensibly, a Slum Redevelopment scheme is being promoted to rehouse tribals on the site (tribals' land was acquired soon after independence for the milk colony). In the process, part will be used to provide a cemetery for Muslims, who are short of space for burial of the dead. True to type, the housing scheme has the backing of Shiv Sena corporators, though they are opposed to the cemetery itself!

Once a proposal is passed, it easily sets a precedent. This could well be the beginning of wholesale land grab in a huge no-development zone, considering the astronomical rise in real estate prices in the country's commercial capital. Already, builders have snatched a valuable chunk of the milk colony for the Royal Palms golf club. What began as a somewhat innocuous foray into this area as a sporting club has now metamorphosed into a full-scale posh housing complex. After all, there are not so many addresses in the city which can boast of sylvan surroundings and club facilities, all within a stone's throw of the airport.

A local NGO, CitiSpace, has now been campaigning against the new practice of extending largesse to builders under policies relating to Recreation Grounds and Play Grounds - known in bureaucratic and builders' parlance by the notorious acronym "RG/PG". There was an earlier policy known as 'adoption', under which a citizens' organisation could be given a plot of public land, like a garden, which it had to maintain for five years. However, no construction was allowed on it, except for a 100 square foot gardener's hut. This policy was used, for instance, when a traffic island was created at a vital road junction outside the Joggers' Park in the suburb of Bandra for the Laughter Club. It was only after the residents complained about the nuisance created by the "gardeners" grinding fruit and vegetables in the wee hours of the morning to make juice for members that this practice was stopped. That, however, has not deterred the Laughter Club from disturbing the peace with their raucous, forced bellows soon after dawn each and every morning.

Genuine organisations which have maintained gardens and other spaces now find that they are harassed by BMC Ward officers and garden superintendents when their leases expire and they ask for a renewal.

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Under the new policy, an organisation can now be permitted to act as a "caretaker" on a bigger plot. This reserved land is then allotted for up to 33 years. However, the terms of such allotment are liberal - a quarter of the plot area can serve as a plinth, with a floor-space index (FSI, the built-up area as a proportion of the area of the plot) of 75%. As if this was not enough to whet the appetites of builders, the remaining 25% of FSI is usable on the remaining three-quarters of the plot. Under the earlier caretaker policy, the Metropolitan Region Town Planning (MRTP) Act only permitted only one-tenth of a plot to be used as a plinth for 15% of the area, with an FSI of 0.15. For example, on a ten-acre plot, the plinth would be 1 acre or 44,000 square feet. On this, 15% of the total plot is buildable, which amounts to 1.5 acres or 66,000 square feet.

Under the new caretaker regulations, on the same plot, the plinth area would be 25% of the plot -- 2.5 acres or 1,10,000 square feet. With three-quarters of the plot as FSI, the buildable area would amount to a whopping 7.5 acres or 3,30,000 square feet. Thus, the new policy would provide five times the built-up area, which underlines the magnitude of this scam. A BMC ad in 2002, openly soliciting applications for such ventures, cites that it is open to "citizens, business houses, institutions, societies, trusts and organisations", a virtual come-all invitation. And, for good measure, it adds that such expenditures are exempt under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

As has become the standard practice in such measures, the details of the revised policy aren't yet made public. However, the agenda of the BMC Improvements Committee this October asks for "the sanction to suitably incorporate the suggestions stipulated by the Urban Development Department by their letter dated 2/9/2006 ... to adopt the revised policy guidelines along with amendments suggested by the Govt. for implementation."

CitiSpace sought data on such conversions in the eastern and western suburbs under the Right to Information Act. As many as 213 parks and gardens have been leased so far, amounting to 259 acres. In addition, there are 343 Recreation and Play Grounds, amounting to 479 acres. The quarter of RG/PG land thus potentially totals 120 acres, which is equivalent to six Oval maidans and built-up area running into lakhs of square feet. CitiSpace, as a test case, actually sought permission to adopt a plot. The BMC requested it to draft revised terms and conditions for this purpose. It submitted these documents two years ago, after which there has been a deafening silence. It was apparently sent to the Mantralaya, but meanwhile the revised policy was issued this year. Genuine organisations which have maintained gardens and other spaces now find that they are harassed by BMC Ward officers and garden superintendents when their leases expire and they ask for a renewal. Often, files are 'lost'. This is atrocious, considering that these bona fide organisations are doing the BMC's work for it.

According to CitiSpace, the BMC is now seeking to change policies to permit 15% of public and private grounds like maidans to be reserved for places of worship. This would simply be the last straw, considering that Mumbai has the lowest amount of open space of any metropolis in the country - an abysmal 0.03 acres per thousand people, as against 4 acres in Delhi. There are also allegations that 60 acres of space in BEST bus depots may be sold to raise some Rs 1,200 crore for the cash-strapped undertaking. These in all probability will be converted into malls.

CitiSpace's Nayana Kathpalia says: "We are certainly concerned with the numbers but more importantly, we are very clear that only the adoption policy should reign and absolutely no construction beyond a mali's hut, lights and water connection and fencing should be allowed on all recreation grounds and playgrounds. If, as the BMC claims, there are no organisations coming forth to adopt these grounds, they must all be adopted by the BMC itself. They have the money; it is their duty and they must not be allowed to get away with doing nothing. Also, if there is a need for sports facilities in certain areas, the BMC must provide these at its cost and charge the public for using them. There is a well tried out model in Delhi where the DDA runs such zonal facilities."

Citizens may challenge such changes of land use, considering that they are not permitted under the Development Plan. The only two clauses that empower the state government to permit such change are that if there is an emergency, or if doing so is in the public interest. Neither of these conditions is evident in these land conversions, which are thinly-disguised attempts by builders and developers to swallow the few remaining chunks of open land.