My Land, My Open Space – A Debate

In this post, there are two articles bordering on the same issue. While Mr. N. S. Venkataraman writes on Andhra government’s obnoxious decision of usurping arable land for developing its capital city, Mrs. Meera Sanyal takes us through Mumbai’s municipal corporation’s policy of land adoption and wonders if it’s a back-door entry to a land grab.

In both articles, the question is of land, an area of ground being encroached upon illegally, leaving the aam admi poorer – whether it is his farmland being snatched away from him or whether it is that open space which he cannot call his own little paradise any more.  

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CONVERTING  AGRICULTURAL LAND FOR  DEVELOPING  CITY  IN ANDHRA PRADESH – AN OBNOXIOUS   DECISION 

N. S. Venkataraman

It is shocking news that 30,000 acres of fertile agricultural land has been used for developing Amaravati as the capital city of Andhra Pradesh.  The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has grievously erred and has done a great disservice by using agricultural land to build a capital city.  Does the Chief Minister feel that developing a city is more important than cultivating rice or pulses?

This trend of converting agricultural land for a purpose other than agriculture, like building houses or for constructing a factory now appears common all over the country.  Our Prime Minister who inaugurated the new capital city seems to have ignored this obnoxious act.

While industrial growth should complement agricultural growth, there is no good reason to believe that industrial activity or the construction of a city is pursued at the cost of agricultural operations.  This is counter-productive.   The CM owes an explanation for this undesirable move.

The average growth of agriculture during the first four years of the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) will be around 1.5% against a target of 4%.  This inadequate growth is bound to have a huge adverse impact on the economy of rural India and in the poverty alleviation programmes.

More than 50% of the Indian population is employed in the agricultural sector and their economic status is unsatisfactory.  The Government of India has argued, in the recent past, that many people are not really needed to be employed in agricultural operations and a considerable segment of the agricultural workforce should be placed in industrial and other activities to improve their social and economic conditions.  There could be a point in this.

However, one needs to realize the difference between weaning away agricultural workers to other areas of employment and taking away the agricultural land and putting it to use for non-agricultural purposes.  It is essential that the Government of India appreciates that the contribution of the agricultural sector for India’s growth is as significant as that of the industrial or the services sector, perhaps, more significant.

India has around 160 million hectares of arable land, second largest in the world after the USA and the world’s largest gross irrigated area of around 83 million hectares.  In the last five years, agriculture has contributed around USD75 billion to the national exchequer by way of exports.  India ranks as the fifth largest exporter of agricultural products after the USA, Brazil, China and Canada.  Furthermore, the import component for agriculture is insignificant compared to the service/industry sectors.

All said and done, the Indian economy is agriculture oriented and will continue to remain so, for all times to come.  India should be proud of this ground reality.  In fact, the agricultural sector represents the basic strength of the Indian economy and the highest importance should be given to protect the farming community and the agricultural economy.

The Government of India’s recent proposal to introduce the Land Acquisition Bill was justifiably met with huge opposition throughout the country.  Fortunately, the Prime Minister let the ordinance lapse.  The bill wrongly implicated that the government wants to convert agricultural land for industrial use and give more preference to industrial growth rather than agricultural growth.  The government failed to convince the farmer about the purpose of the bill.

Agriculture can do as good for India as the industry and service sectors. There is no conflict of interest between the agriculture and the non-agriculture sectors.  But, taking away fertile agricultural land for constructing a city, housing colony or factories is undesirable, in principle, and as an economic growth strategy.

Today, there are thousands of acres of industrial land which remain unused. There are more than two million hectares of waste land, marshy and rocky land in the country, which cannot be used for agricultural operations but can certainly be used for non-agricultural purposes.  Surely, the government could have examined these possibilities while introducing the land acquisition bill.

To sum up, agriculture needs strong government support to improve yield and productivity and there should be no attempt to reduce agricultural land in the country.  The Prime Minister would do well to listen to the voice of rural India and announce a policy decision that all agricultural land in India would remain intact and it will be used only for agricultural purposes.  Converting agricultural land to other activities is like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

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OPEN KIMONO ON OPEN SPACES

Meera Sanyal

(The article was first published in DNA of November 19, 2015.)

It is a well-known fact that Mumbai has only 2.5% of its area as public open spaces amounting to just 1.95 square meters of open space per citizen. What is not so well-known is that the city has 1068 plots of Recreation Grounds (RGs) and Play Grounds (PGs) covering 1200 acres that currently exist as parks under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).  It is these precious open spaces that are at the heart of the proposed Adoption Policy of the BMC.

According to Mr. SVR Srinivas, Additional Municipal Commissioner, an adoption policy is essential because 225 such parks are currently maintained by private organizations for the last eight years without any policy framework in place.  Prominent citizen activists have opposed this, as the previous caretaker policy was misused to construct private clubs in prominent locations, many with restricted access and huge membership fees, brazenly usurping the open space from the common citizen.

The proposed Adoption Policy contains certain clauses that would give the authorities (BMC) the discretion to facilitate a further land grab by vested interests.  One such clause reads “…. if any recognized National/State level sports association/federation proposes to provide facilities as a special case on any Recreation Ground of the Municipal Corporation, permission shall be granted to such association/federation, as a special case, for construction subject to Development Control Regulation”.

The Policy throws open the adoption to many stakeholders – residents associations, NGOs, sporting institutions, associations of shop-keepers,  business associations, educational institutes, PSUs and private corporate houses wishing to use their CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds.  While, in principle, a public-private partnership is a good idea, the concern arises from the criteria of selection.  The ranking criteria are such that few ALMs (advance locality managements) or NGOs could win against business associations or corporate houses.  Conversely, the governance and monitoring requirements are so complex that few corporations would want to take on the headache.

The most controversial clause is the “Caretaker” clause giving a blanket endorsement to all previous land grabs.  The clause reads “If these organizations have made an application on or before December 31, 2014 and if they can prove to have spent Rs.3 crores or more, towards the development/redevelopment/refurbishment of the plot, then these applications should be considered as eligible for caretaker agreements.  It will be mandatory for the organization to ensure that 30% of its total members are local residents.  These residents should be charged 20% of the total membership fee.”  In one stroke of the pen, prime open spaces that have been usurped in the past for private clubs have been legitimized!  Instead, the BMC should penalize and demolish all illegal and unauthorized constructions on open spaces.  If at all they wish to preserve the “club houses” constructed, then these should be open to all.

Fueling the controversy is the fact that the BMC does not need the money generated from ‘adoption’!  “The BMC would need to spend only Rs.108 crores to maintain all 1068 parks and 1200 acres – a pittance compared to their annual budget of Rs.33,514 crores and well within the sanctioned allocation of the garden department budget of Rs.439.2 crores” remarks NAGAR, an NGO that has done yeoman work in protecting Mumbai’s open spaces.

At the heart of the debate is a lack of clarity on what should be the desired objective of an Open Space Policy for the city.  Is it to facilitate a further land grab by vested interests or is it to make our Open Spaces truly open to all?  If it is the latter, then the BMC would be well served by clearly defining its objectives, which will help take away much of the distrust that presently exists.

From a Mumbaikar’s perspective, at a bare minimum, Mumbai’s Open Spaces should:

  • exist in reality, not just on paper
  • be open to the public
  • be clean, safe and aesthetic
  • be integrated with the needs of local residents
  • be accessible especially to children, the elderly, and those differently abled
  • be visible and well lit, so citizens can guard against surreptitious encroachment

Moreover, in keeping with the mantra of SMART cities, Mumbai’s open spaces should also ideally:

  • be wifi enabled, so that even the poorest can use the space for digital access
  • act as carbon sinks and optimally be designed for water harvesting
  • proactively adopt solar energy and waste composting techniques
  • be refuge areas for Disaster Management
  • be designed for 24×7 multi-purpose use, including for cultural, artistic and literary events

In a city as densely congested as Mumbai, our open spaces are an incredibly precious resource.  Each one of us – no matter how rich or poor, no matter what our gender, age, religion, community or caste – needs these spaces to live. Without the space to rest, exercise or play, or just to walk and talk with a friend or a loved one, in an atmosphere of peace, life in our city will be unbearable.  They are the lungs that give us the air to breathe, the arteries that nourish our souls, and the neurons that keep us sane.  These are the spaces that are vital to keep the Spirit of Mumbai alive.

Post-script by FF Digital : The Adoption Policy on Open Spaces for Mumbai was tabled on December 14, 2015 at the BMC General Body meeting.  Following protests from citizen activists and beneficiaries of the Policy, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a Mumbai-based think tank has come up with a comprehensive report which recommends that the BMC reviews the lease of all open spaces.  In view of this, there could be a rethink on the Policy incorporating the suggestions in the report.  We keep our fingers crossed.

The dictionary definition of the phrase “open kimono” in the title of the article is – To reveal what is being planned or to share important information freely.

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Mr. N. S. Venkataraman, Trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai.  E-mail: nsvenkatchennai@gmail.com

Mrs. Meera Sanyal is the former Chairperson & CEO of RBS India, who stepped down to enter public life.  She had contested for the Lok Sabha elections as a candidate from South Mumbai in 2009 and 2014.  E-mail: meerasanyal@gmail.com

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One thought on “My Land, My Open Space – A Debate

  1. I FULLY AGREE WITH MEERA SANYAL.
    I DO NOT AGREE WITH VENKATRAMAN. BARELY 3% OF OUR LAND IN INDIA IS AT PRESENT USED FOR NON-AGRICULTURAL PURPOSES. OUR AGRI-PRODUCTION IS NOT GROWING AT A SATISFACTORY, BECAUSE OF FAILURE OF RAIN, ABSENCE OF IRRIGATION, SHORTAGE OF OTHER INPUTS LIKE FERTILIZERS, SHORTAGE OF GOOD STORAGE,TRANSPORTATION AND MARKETING FACILITIES, AND ALSO BECAUSE OF TOO MANY PERSONS DEPENDING ON AGRICULTURE FOR THEIR LIVELIHOOD, BECAUSE OF ABSENCE OF GOOD EMPLOYMENT IN OTHER FIELDS. A NEW CAPITAL OR NEW INDUSTRY CANNOT BE LOCATED ANY WHERE IN THE COUNTRY , REGARDLESS OF THEIR SPECIFIC NEEDS LIKE TRANSPORTATION ETC. ON THE OTHER HAND, SUCH NON-AGRICULTURAL USE OF LAND WILL HELP FARMERS
    BY INCREASING JOB OPPORTUNITIES OUTSIDE AGRICULTURE.
    SHORTAGE FERTILE LAND IS NOT BLOCKING OUR AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION.

    Like

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