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

Land sale ensued with politicians’ proxies, newly floated companies and old mill owners turned developers bidding up the price to staggering levels. In all, Rs.2,000 crores were paid for 600 acres. Demolition of mill structures began. And no one seemed to have the power to stop the builders.

[At this point, it is difficult to resist contrasting with what would have happened in China, our oft compared rival and to many admiring Indians, a role model. In China the story would have ended here. Builders and investors would have rapidly developed the 600 acres into a steel, glass and concrete heaven that our visiting Indians routinely gawk and admire, while wondering why progress is ‘slow’ in India. Read on for what can happen in India.]

A little known group of environment activists, the Bombay Environment Action Group [BEAG] raised its voice and challenged the amendment to Rule 58. Shyam Chainani and Debi Goenka of BEAG are old fearless campaigners on behalf of the environment with many successes to their credit. Legal luminaries I M Chagla, S H Doctor and N H Seervai appeared for BEAG.

The case mounted by Chagla unmasked a collusion of vested interests. Amendment to Rule 58 was no ordinary matter- it violated Article 48a of India’s Constitution entitled ‘Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife’. Also the builders had begun construction without commissioning an Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] and obtaining clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. And quite simply, whose interest was the state serving by amending Rule 58 in the manner it did?

On October 17, 2005 a Bench consisting of Mr Justice S Radhakrishnan and Mr Justice S C Dharmadikari struck down the amendment to Rule 58;all sales of mill lands based on the amended rule was set aside. The Hon’ble Court stated without ambiguity: one third each of *all* lands owned by the National Textile Corporation was to be given over to low cost housing and public use. The balance third may be developed after obtaining an EIA.

Gloom descended on the builders’ lobby and shares prices of companies whose fortunes depended on unhindered development of old mill lands,tumbled. No doubt the lobby will appeal to the Supreme Court. That is their right in this land, which they cannot enjoy in lands they admire. But here Courts are a forum which citizens may use to revive dreams.

Dreams such as the one Charles Correa conjured up for Mumbai “that would include affordable housing, pedestrian and commercial plazas, grounds, green spaces, boulevards and even a museum. It details how certain NTC mills along the waterfront could be redeveloped so that the city becomes richer by another beach like Juhu or Chowpatty.” That dream might yet come true.

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