Of Communities

In mid 2003, leading newspapers of Mumbai carried articles stating that a cabinet sub-committee under the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State had allotted a piece of land in Bandra (a suburb of Mumbai) to certain developers. The newspapers also mentioned that the developers intended to develop commercial and residential real-estate on it. This land was marked as a recreational ground in the Development Plan (the Master Plan) of the city and belonged to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), a government agency that is responsible for housing in the state. Due to its location, this piece of land was prime property and was valued at Rs. 200 Crores in the year 2003.

Altered by the news, the local Residents’ Association, the General Arun Kumar Vaidya Nagar (GAK Nagar) Rahiwasi Sangh decided to approach the Bombay High Court with a plea for maintaining the use of this land as a public open space. The members of the Association were inspired by the case of Oval Maidan. The Oval Residents’ Association had fought a court case, where they argued that the Maidan was under severe threat of abuse and misuse as the government was unable to maintain it. They also insisted that the responsibility of maintaining it should be handed over to the Oval Residents’ Association. The Mumbai High Court had instructed the Resident’s Association to prove their capacity in a pilot period of one year to organise resources and improve the Maidan. Subsequently the Residents’ Association, with the help of several private groups upgraded the open space. They made several small interventions: fenced the area, leveled the open space for efficient drainage, demarcated areas for different purposes and appointed several private agencies to use and maintain the area. With the success of the first year, the court asked the Municipal Corporation to hand over the maintenance of the Maidan to the Oval Residents’ Association. This meant that the resident’s association would independently responsible for collection of the revenue as well as reinvesting it for maintenance.

CRIT was approached by the GAK Nagar Residents’ Association to help with the Public Interest Litigation. They asked CRIT to prepare a document with arguments for keeping the open space as a recreational ground instead of developing it for commercial purposes. The document was also to contain plans for improvement of the open space along with (organizational and financial) strategies to maintain it. This document was not only being prepared for the court, but was also for the private parties who were to invest in the development of the area as well as for the various state and private institutions whose blessings were required for the development of the space. The GAK Nagar Residents’ Association wanted to prepare itself to take over the open space like the case of Oval Maidan.

CRIT started the project with a detailed survey of the community and the space. The “Residents Association” which represented the community, largely comprised of first generation residents, who were retired, ex-Government employees. These were politically aware with high enthusiasm and often used their old links to sort small issues with the government. The second generation was largely involved in private sector. This group was enthusiastic about getting involved in the activity of saving and maintaining the open space. They wanted to get involved as “watch dogs to discourage encroachments, maintaining, reducing pollution and lobbying against political groups”. There were also other groups using the space. These were the people from the neighbouring informal settlement, who used the open space more than the people from GAK Vaidya Nagar. There were also other users of the open space like the occasional hawkers who sold their wares around the open space. Part of the open space was rented for exhibitions and other community activities like marriages.

The residents of the GAK Vaidya Nagar liked to call themselves “Civilised, Educated, Well Behaved, Cooperative, Peaceful, Enthusiastic and Like Minded”. They liked to stay in this place not only because of these reasons, but also because they perceived the location as “convenient, having a good access, well planned and with good surroundings like the sea”. They also listed a series of reasons regarding their needs of the open space – Environmental Reasons (of ecological balance, ventilation, and breathing space) and Cultural Reasons (like for recreational purposes and social and cultural gatherings). They were specifically concerned about the Elderly and the Children and also argued that since there were several educational institutes in the area, the open space would be useful for these children. A number of them did not have a problem of the land being developed into “congruent activities” like Gymnasium, Sports Centre, Exhibition hall, Community Hall, Library, Swimming Pool, Theatre, etc. The entire group however was unanimous about their dislikes – they did not like “the slum-dwellers and hawkers” using the open space and felt that parcelling the land for other activities like exhibition and marriages was a public nuisance. On the other-hand, the concerns of the informal community were not articulate. They did not recognise any need of the open space. When posed with the question of where would their children play if the land was developed as a commercial space, the answer was: “on the road”. The existence of the open space was incidental to the informal community. They also did not have any aspirations on the area except one opinion was that it could be developed for housing them.

While it was expected that people would suggest the open space to be kept open as a public space, most people wanted some development. On the other hand the “Residents’ Association” was very clear about maintaining the space as open. For CRIT, the question was whether the Residents’ Association really represented the community aspiration. Moreover, the other problem was that the definition of the community was not clear, because if users of the space were to be considered as the community, then all informal people would be stakeholders. The interests within the community were also conflicting. The formal community (that had appointed CRIT) however, clearly did not want the informal community to have any stakes on the open land. The informal community on the other hand was also not very clear. CRIT concluded that this community was more interested in livelihood problems and problems of being evicted, and hence problems of having no space for leisure did not feature in their list of problems. In that case the dilemma faced by CRIT was whether to consider their needs for open space, or work with the bias that the open space is required only for the formal community.

It was clear that, if the space was handed over to the Residents’ Association, a number of people would have been excluded from using it. On the other hand, if it was not handed over to the Residents’ Association, then it was vulnerable to the interests of the developers. The ambiguity of claim over it seemed to have saved it for so long. CRIT decided to support such this ambiguity.