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Oct 29, 2005
Mumbai mill lands, retrieved for the people

The Bombay High Court’s recent judgment on the sale of mill lands in that city is yet another display of Indian democracy’s robustness. Most of the times, the executive plays rings around citizens and they despair and give up. But when all seems lost, along come a few lone warriors. They group themselves and mount a seemingly impossible counter-attack on powerful interests. Then judges as on Oct 17, speak out some plain truth and call the bluff of authorities feigning child like innocence. The confrontation does not quiet end there. But in the next round, culprits are a little wiser, more chastened and hopefully better behaved. By such small progress is democracy strengthened.

Mumbai was a profitable manufacturing centre until independence with prime land occupied by docks, engineering works and textile mills. Some 600 acres in central Mumbai belonged to several textile mills. Over time, profitability of these mills diminished and owners began to covet opportunities in real estate development. An ill-managed textile workers’ strike in the 80s and the advent of economic reforms in 1991, set the stage for re-zoning mill lands.

Socialist orthodoxy does not keel over and surrender to market forces all at once. It creeps up there in stages. So a ‘good-on-paper’ policy was formulated in 1991 as a new Development Control Regulation [DCR]. By Rule 58 of this DCR, some 600 acres of mill lands could be sold, provided a third was reserved for public use [like parks and play grounds], a third for affordable housing and a third for owners to develop as they pleased.

With citizens lulled into thinking their interests had been safe-guarded by DCR, the Maharashtra Government perpetrated its act of stealth in 2001: it amended Rule 58 of the DCR to read that the three way share applied only to “open lands” and not the whole land. This simple sleight of hand reduced the land available for public spaces -parks, pedestrian malls, boulevards etc- from 200 acres to just 20. MCGM [Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, which was entitled to a third of the land to develop as public spaces] and MHADA [Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority to which was due another third for affordable house building] maintained deafening silences.

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