BMC can't see the forest for the trees

No matter who is in power in Maharashtra, Mumbai is just seen as a massive snatch and grab opportunity. In many ways, it is nothing short of a miracle that the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Milk Colony in the northern suburbs have remained relatively untouched for so long. Of course, there have been several transgressions and the borders of the national park and the milk colony have been nibbled at. But the new Development Plan by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Commission which suggests that Aarey be cut down to 14 per cent of its current 4,000 acres is the worst invasion so far.

In a symbolic protest against the felling of trees for development projects, citizens covered logs in shrouds with ‘blood’ stains. Hundreds had come together earlier this month, to protest against proposals to construct a Metro  depot or a business hub in Aarey Colony. File pic
In a symbolic protest against the felling of trees for development projects, citizens covered logs in shrouds with ‘blood’ stains. Hundreds had come together earlier this month, to protest against proposals to construct a Metro  depot or a business hub in Aarey Colony. File pic

All that delicious land, full of you know, trees, birds, animals, plants and stuff, waiting to be made into railway sheds, roads, colleges, schools, homes, roads, entertainment zones... wow, imagine the fun we’ll have. Why do we need green areas at all? I mean come on, if the weather’s that hot, we’ll just buy more air-conditioners. And if it doesn’t rain, we’ll just “seed” the clouds. Who needs all this green nonsense when perfectly good usable land is wasting money sitting there?

After all that this city has been through with environmental degradation and all the planet has learnt, it is remarkable that the city’s premier guardian agency should decide to squander its future for a few roads and buildings. Or is it? A few years ago, similar plans were made by the BMC to ‘redevelop’ the zoo and to destroy all the land around the maidans in South Mumbai to recreate New York’s Central Park. And lo and behold, Central Park appears again in the new Aarey scheme as well.

You get the feeling some auditor somewhere told the BMC that it had to justify some trip to New York to look at Central Park. Or perhaps more romantically, some municipal commissioners are completely enamoured of the Park. So much so that they want to take a beautiful piece of wilderness rich with life, tear it down and recreate it as a man-made appropriation of nature might be like. Yes, you may well ask why.

The most obvious and cynical answer would be that there’s money to be made. And indeed there is. This city lives, breathes and sweats money, from life on the pavement to the various vagaries of our slum redevelopment schemes to the middle classes who stretch themselves to pay high interest home loans for fantasy lives in gated communities filled with thin people in gyms and where the neighbour’s children never scream. And where land is in short supply, every spare bit of space goes up in value.

But there are other reasons as well, the foremost being a severe case of non-application of mind. For over two decades now, no solution to Mumbai’s problems has even attempted to look at the entire picture. Slapdash, piecemeal and haphazard schemes have made an absolute mess of what should have been an exemplar metropolis to the rest of India. Mumbai started with all the advantages and squandered all of them.

And so we turn our greedy eyes on the one part of the city which keeps it alive: those green lungs, to use our favourite cliché, that stretch from Jogeshwari to Borivli. The fact is that Mumbai will not survive without that undeveloped, natural, wild area. Any quick internet search will tell you that we have one of the lowest people to open space ratio for any major world city. And Aarey and the national park make up a statistical chunk of what we do have. Idiotic phrases like ‘quality of life’ are bandied about. There is no life however in a dead, dry, airless, treeless city, even if it has plenty of amusement parks and sheds for railway carriages.

Let us not even discuss the arrogance of a species which has long ago decided that no other species merits any consideration at all. Getting rid of Aarey will just emphasise our short-sighted
selfishness.

It is to the state government’s credit that it has trashed the BMC’s plan. But it has to prove this to a sceptical and busy public. One way would be to get the BMC to forget that it ever heard of Central Park. If they want buggy rides around the Plaza, there are enough soppy movies to watch. Meanwhile, let’s save Aarey. And ourselves!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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