Mumbai has a rare and exceptional opportunity in a century to reinvent itself. It could be a transformed city with new world-class transport facilities, housing, open spaces, leisure zones, as well as business and job opportunities if dynamic and inclusive plans are drawn up to develop its hitherto closed eastern waterfront. But will it be able to?

Last year, when Union Minister of Shipping Nitin Gadkari resurrected the 12-year-old idea of redeveloping the 1,800 acres of land controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust, he spoke of floating hotels and a giant Ferris wheel, like the London Eye. The grey 28 km-long stretch is currently marked by derelict warehouses, ship-breaking clusters, severely reduced port activities, fishing zones and scattered colonies for port workers.

In July, Gadkari set up the Mumbai Port Trust Land Development Committee to make recommendations on the area’s future. The report, finalised in November, is now with the shipping ministry as well as the Prime Minister’s Office. It lays out a vision for the land, details a roadmap and suggests mechanisms, including setting up a new autonomous body for the area’s redevelopment. It says that nearly 1,000 acres – or 60% of the port trust’s 1,860 acres – should be opened up for economic regeneration, new transport connectivity, open spaces, housing stock, tourism and leisure activities.

When the committee began its task last year, it had invited suggestions from the public. Thousands of recommendations, both macro and micro, poured in.

It is not clear from the report if the committee members were informed or guided by the concepts or visions that dropped into their mail boxes. These have been collated in 26 pages as an “afterword” at the end of the report. The suggestions from Mumbaikars show an awareness and concern, not the apathy usually associated with the city’s residents.

Many questions linger

A remarkable, but unsurprising, advice from the public is “no commercial development”, which the committee listed in as many words along with various variations of this basic idea. The suggestion shows the lingering apprehension of Mumbaikars that the eastern waterfront will be lost to the highest bidders and developers, the way the 600 acres of textile mills land in central Mumbai has been lost in the last decade and a half despite a government plan to redevelop it in a more equitable way.

“Mumbai should have got 200 acres of the mill land for open spaces. It got zero,” said Charles Correa, the legendary architect and urban planner who had fine-tuned the redevelopment proposal for the mill land. “Mumbai should have got another 200 acres for affordable housing. Instead, it got super luxury apartment complexes. The stakes are much, much, higher in the port trust land redevelopment.”

How much land will finally be used for the city is a matter of inference at this time, given the complex nature of tenancies scattered across the port land and the protracted litigations over some of them. But a fair estimate would be 1,000 acres. The report recommends this division: 40% of it for mixed use, including commercial activities and housing, 30% for public open spaces, 25% for transport services, and 5% for social amenities.

Given Mumbai’s unholy developer-politician nexus, there are questions around this apportionment. Is this a fair division keeping in mind the needs of the city? Why isn’t land specifically earmarked to create affordable housing in a city where nearly half the residents live in slums? How can the authority be trusted to release the maximum possible land for public amenities? Will the redevelopment of the eastern waterfront be driven by commercial considerations?

Listen to stakeholders

Before the answers to these questions are concretised, it is imperative that Gadkari make the report public. Mumbaikars must be allowed to access the commission’s report and debate it in a way that the committee will listen. The report should spark off discussions, multiple and heated if need be, on how best to utilise the land and what uses should be prioritised.

The committee or its representatives must listen to all stakeholders, including those who have been battling the Mumbai Port Trust in the court. Further, it must be willing to amend its plan accordingly. Already, union leaders of the two leading unions in the port – the Dock and General Employees’ Union and Transport Dock Workers Union – have demanded 70 acres for construction of low-cost housing for 11,000 union members and around 37,000 port trust pensioners.

At the same time, open spaces campaigners are worried that the land should not be used to create one large park at the city’s eastern edge if it is then used as an excuse to usurp smaller open spaces in hundreds of neighbourhoods across Mumbai.

Start a debate

“I would like to see a multi-sports facility on that stretch, a space that can be used to train children and adults in different sports,” remarked Rahul Bose, actor and social activist, at a Hindustan Times panel discussion on the subject earlier this month. “There isn’t anything like this in the report.” He plans to let the committee know his ideas.

Like Bose, there are many who believe they must be heard. This can happen only when Gadkari makes the report public. That is assuming that the Prime Minister’s Office, which asked for a copy last week, decides against it.

The report must not be treated as the final plan. Its recommendations should be the starting point for discussions among different – even competing – groups of Mumbaikars. And the committee must listen. Having heard them all, it must not relegate the responses and reactions to an “afterword”.

Thus far, there is only the customary nod to “participatory planning” in the report. It is up to the Prime Minister’s Office and Gadkari to make it meaningful. Equally, Mumbaikars must seize the opportunity to make sure that the eastern waterfront does not become a playground for the rich.

This is the concluding article in a two-part series about Mumbai's docklands. You can read the first part here.