It's deja vu all over again.

On Thursday, Union minister for road transport, highways and shipping, Nitin Gadkari, announced that he had set up a committee to make recommendations on how the 1,800 acres of land controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust could be monetised to turn around the organisation's fortunes.

Gadkari suggested that the loss-making Mumbai Port Trust could be revived if the 28-kilometre eastern waterfront under its charge was transformed into a tourist destination. Indicating that he already had strong ideas about the items he expects the committee to include in its report, the minister sketched out plans for floating restaurants, museums, commercial centres and a giant wheel modelled on the British capital’s London Eye.

The minister estimated that the Mumbai Port Trust, which reported a loss of Rs 70.5 crore last year, had land holdings valued at Rs 75,000 crore.

Gadkari's announcement wasn't unexpected. The inauguration of the Eastern Freeway through Mumbai's docklands in June ensured easy access to this wonderfully overgrown part of the city, which has long been a real-estate developer's dream. As people began to zip down the 17-kilometre elevated road, it was only a matter of time before regulatory changes reared in their heads. (Already, the Maharashtra government has announced plans to build a 71-acre office complex on ecologically sensitive salt pan land at the northern end of the Freeway.)

However, it's far from certain that opening up the Mumbai Port Trust holdings to development of the sort proposed by Gadkari will be in the best interests of the woefully congested metropolis. For instance, it isn't clear why floatels and Ferris wheels should be a priority in a city that houses just under 50% of its population in slums. Using the land for low-cost housing, with a large rental component, would do much more to improve the quality of life for all Mumbai's residents.

With so much at stake, it isn't surprising that property consultants have already described their vision of what the land-starved city should do with the waterfront. If the Mumbai Port Trust land is made available for commercial exploitation, Anuj Puri, chairman and country head property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle India, told Mint, it could “attract lot of high-end real-estate development such as malls, office complexes, residential apartments”.

This will all sound sickeningly familiar to anyone who has tracked Mumbai’s land-use regulations in recent times.

In 1991, when Mumbai’s ailing textile mills claimed they had no funds to buy new machinery or even pay workers their vast dues, the authorities altered a section of the Development Control Regulations to help mill owners modernise their factories. Mill owners would be allowed to sell 15% of their holdings to generate funds to revive their operations. Soon, mill owners began to sell off slivers of their land – but failed to reinvest the proceeds.

The government then changed its strategy, allowing the owners to cash-out entirely. But there was a catch. They had to surrender one-third of their land for public housing and another third for open spaces and public utilities. This plan for the 600 acres of mill land in the heart of the city offered Mumbai the opportunity to revitalise itself and breathe again.

Of course, it was too good to be true. In 2001, without any public discussion, the rule relating to mill land sales was modified again. The amended regulation clarified that the two-thirds rule did not apply to the entire plot on which their factories stood, but only to the open spaces between structures, such as the courtyards and passageways. The original formulation gave Mumbai 400 acres of land on which to re-imagine itself. The revised version would free up only about 50 acres — and shatter any prospect of implementing a holistic plan for city development.

Citizens’ organisations eventually caught on to the surreptitious amendment, but it was too late. Their challenge was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2006. With that, the owners of Mumbai's mills began to develop their plots piecemeal, building a chaotic sprawl of malls and office complexes and gated-communities, with roads that are far too narrow to carry the increased volumes of traffic.

Though Gadkari said that no private developers would be involved in Mumbai Port Trust project, citizens have every reason to be suspicious of this seemingly well-meaning plan. Mumbai’s politicians and bureaucrats have colluded on too many land swindles in recent years to retain much credibility. They will have to work much harder to convince Mumbaikars that the scandal of the mill land will not be repeated. This time, the stakes are three times as high.