As India prepares to witness the monumental defeat of Lutyens’ Delhi’s “colonial ethos” through a massive makeover of the Central Vista that includes Rashtrapati Bhavan, the parliament building and India Gate, new lines are being drawn on Mumbai’s docklands that will determine how the city’s biggest slice of public land will be divided up and used.

Apart from the Central government’s authority and its favored architecture firm HCP Design as consultant, there is little in common between these two proposals. Out of the Central Vista’s 40-hectare site, modeled to represent the “values and aspirations of New India” will most likely emerge, as the historian Narayani Gupta puts it, an “Indo-Saracenic-Modernist-Brutalist-Burj Dubai concoction”.

On the other hand, the docklands of Mumbai, now rebranded as the “Cruise Tourism Capital of the country”, demand a style more suited to the tastes of corporate capital. Its 253-hectare “redevelopment site” will be bestowed with a gridiron plan propping up a Modernist-Corporate-Manhattanesque Glitzkrieg, embellished with a London-Eye-inspired ferris wheel. The proposal explains why: Manhattan’s “iconic rectilinear street grid has been called the most courageous act of prediction in Western Civilisation”.

Behind all of this scenographic pomposity, however, lurk more sobering concerns.

The Mumbai Port Trust has held the eastern waterfront land in public trusteeship for the purpose of carrying out industrial or port activity. If these activities are to be shifted elsewhere or deemed no longer viable, how should the change in land use be determined? Ought these decisions be based on speculative visions concocted by land privatisation boosters? Or ought they be based on a delicate, tentative, consensus mode of planning that is responsive to the needs of commoners and residents? Shouldn’t the urgent priorities of employment, housing, infrastructure and environment be at the forefront of decision making regarding the future of this vital public resource?

Mumbai's Eastern Waterfront. Credit: Urban Design Research Institute via Twitter

The Dockland Development Plan

In December 2018, the Mumbai Port Trust – the Special Planning Authority for 966.3 hectares of the city’s eastern waterfront – released its Draft Development Plan for public scrutiny. The plan aimed to transform the waterfront into a “Sea Transport and Tourism Hub”. The list of plan objectives included – among the commonplace objectives of sustainable development and making public facilities – the explicit purpose of “unlocking commercial value of the land and assets” as well as flexibility to “address the changing needs of the market”.

The most controversial proposal of the plan was a Reclaimed Park in the sea that was thrown in after almost all the land was taken up for port, tourism, commercial and residential use. Critics saw this as a Faustian offer: accept reclamation, or forget about open space. Minus the Reclaimed Park, the Plan provided a merge 72 hectares of open space – or 8.6% of the total planning area. Objections swiftly followed. The Mumbai Port Trust now claims it has revised the plan’s objectives and proposals based on the objections received.

Newspaper articles have already begun to declare the 2020 Revised Plan a “victory in the city’s fight for open spaces”. The plan now talks about the objective of “improving quality of life for Mumbaikars”. The allocation of open space has been increased. A new “Hi-Tech City” promises “large scale highly productive employment generation” for Mumbai’s economy, and “futuristic and transparent” urban development promises to become a “model for the country”. In a presentation made in Mumbai on February 28, the project’s planner Bimal Patel declared that his proposal will “create large parks, opportunities for new developments that might add to jobs and productivity”.

But before we celebrate, let’s ask: what does the revised plan offer?

A section of the waterfront. Credit: Urban Design Research Institute.

1. More land for the Port Authority, less land for Mumbai

In 2015, the Union government had set up a Mumbai Port Land Development Committee to sketch out a vision for the future development of the eastern waterfront. The Committee recommended opening up 432 hectares of eastern waterfront land for development. The 2018 Draft Development Plan kept aside areas for port activities, and planned to open up 479 hectares for development. The 2020 Revised Plan now admits that out of the total Mumbai Port Trust planning area, only 253 hectares will be opened for redevelopment, to “meet Mumbai city’s needs” while the rest of the land will be retained by the trust for existing activities. In short, the latest iteration of the plan has reduced the area opened up for development to just 253 hectares out of the Mumbai Port Trust’s 810 hectares.

Out of this 253 hectares, the revised plan claims that 75% (190 hectares) will be under “public realm”. But there is perhaps nothing more deceptive than a planner’s calculator. This so-called public realm includes 35% for roads, which will be infested with private cars. So instead, let’s look at open spaces.

On paper, we have 82 hectares for open space. The open space area has been increased from the 2018 Draft Plan by adding more neighborhood gardens near commercial and residential plots, and green areas near ecotourism plots. Now neighborhood gardens will most likely be enclosed by the nearby buildings, and ecotourism plots will almost certainly be (semi public) pay-to-use amenities. If we subtract these two categories of open space, we are left with about 52 hectares of public open space or just 20% of 253 hectares.

This is closer to the area that might actually get realised as public open space, not the notional figure advertised by the planners. In other words, this 52 hectares is what Mumbaikars will get out of the 810.9 hectares in control of the Port Authority, a meager 6.4% of the total land.

2. The Hi-Tech City

As Mumbaikars of the future frolic in the iconic waterfront garden while cruise liners and luxury yachts surf the ocean on one side, they might gape in amazement at the menagerie of super-expensive office spires piercing the sky on the other. They might be amazed still, to discover the zoning idea that made this Cartesian array of glittering monoliths achieve its staggering heights. The air rights (unused built potential of open plots) of all the gardens and roads of this 253-hectare site will be amassed on the commercial plots. The result? A “Hi-Tech City” on the waterfront, affirming yet again Mumbai’s variation on Murphy’s Law: if real estate can go higher, it will.

On paper, commercial land use in the 2020 Revised Plan seems to have been reduced as compared to the 2018 Draft Plan. So how has commercial area actually increased? Out comes the planner’s canny calculator once again. The 2018 Draft Plan’s 126-hectare commercial area for this site included roads and reservations within the zone. The Floor Space Index (the ratio of plot size to the size of the building) for this zone ranged from 2.0 to 4.0 gross – which meant that if one takes an average of FSI 3.0, built-up potential would be three times 126 hectares = 378 hectares of commercial space.

In the 2020 revised plan, roads and reservations have been craftily moved to the category of “public realm” suggesting that just 51 hectares remains as “saleable” commercial plots (which is roughly what it was in the 2018 version anyway). However, the entire redevelopment site will now be considered for gross FSI calculations. With an FSI of 2.0 this works out to two times 253 hectares = 506 hectares built-up commercial space. Ergo more build-able area, with taller towers – by clever adjustments in categories and planning boundaries.

This creative accounting allows the planners to placate a public that desires open spaces (a greater area as “public realm”), while offering more to real-estate boosters. However, to think that allowing more air rights on buildable plots is a way to balance “development” with the need to increase open space for city dwellers is a mistake. The gardens and promenades are intended more as scenery and beautification – a stage for the actual project of monetising land and assets. If anything, these provide a standard way of elevating the site’s property values, which will eventually provide a happy destination for super-rich investors to turn their surplus cash into more cash.

A planner's visualisation of Mumbai's redeveloped Eastern Waterfront and its Hi-Tech City.

When questioned after his presentation in Mumbai, the chief planner of the Mumbai Port lands – himself a passionate critic of “hubristic planning” – claimed that monetising land is a “win-win” approach and “if you want all the land to be in the public domain, you will probably get nothing”. This pernicious logic has become endemic to mega-project planning in our cities, where plutocrats and bureaucrats set the parameters for public debate and political contestation. Planners are now tasked with the job of converting everyone’s space into someone’s profit, and when some bits come back, you are expected to just say thank you.

3. A Waterfront Theme park

The ingenuity of the Mumbai Port Trust Plan, to be fair, is not simply limited to its development calculus. The waterfront, we are told, has a “very high potential for cultural tourism”. Consequently, much of the plan reads like a tourist map of landmarks and attractions. The dockland’s piers that once housed the informal ship repair and recycling industry will now be exotically repackaged by the tourism industry: an Arts and Culture pier instead of Tank Bunder, a Meditation and Yoga pier instead of Coal Bunder. Meanwhile, Hay Bunder will be transformed into world-class “theme streets” to showcase Mumbai’s cultural heritage: a Multi-Cuisine Street, a Maharashtra Street, a Bollywood Street, a Maritime Street – even a Reading Street for the intellectually inclined.

It is no longer surprising to find Mumbai’s planning system coughing up project reports and plans where the scale of speculative exuberance is only matched by the extent of indifference to the city’s extreme inequality and environmental vulnerability.

The assertion of global ambitions encoded in this themed complex will provide an opportunity for elites and middle classes to appropriate the grubby reality of this post-industrial landscape of warehouses, yards, piers and working people. And if – or rather when – the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change clears the proposed 93 hectare “reclaimed park” of the MbPT Plan, the 52-hectare open space will be transformed into a 145 hectare “Central Garden” at par “with the likes of Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London”.

Perhaps to allay concerns about the environmental impacts of reclamation, the 93-hectare park will be equipped with a Green Dune, a Wetland, a mangrove maze, even a lake with a miniature version of Mumbai when it was seven islands. As the cultural tourist attractions exhibit a nostalgic longing to recoup the city’s cultural past, these make-believe “ecological” attractions will represent communion with an estranged nature, to be tamed and consumed as a spectacle.

The planned Eco Park.

Public land for the city

These glossy assertions and global ambitions for the waterfront is after all a cover for what it really is: a real-estate megaproject with the aim of converting power into property. The city is being asked to forego all of its waterfront land for 6.4% open space. To spin this capture of public land as a victory for the people of Mumbai represents a new low in public policy debate. We must recall that for the mill lands of about 240 hectares in central Mumbai, the Development Control Rule 58 of the 1991 Development Plan had prescribed a formula through which two-thirds of defunct mill land would be opened for public uses (open spaces, amenities and public housing), and only one-third for mill owners.

The Charles Correa Committee report in 1996 showed how about 124 hectares out of the 186 hectares of land not used for industry could be recycled for public use in a planned manner. The cynical manipulation of the Development Control Rule 58 meant that eventually only a fraction of industrial land would eventually be claimed for public use – but the public claim was made for two-thirds.

So we must ask: why should the city be made to bear the costs of supporting such high-intensity commercial uses proposed by the Mumbai Port Trust plan, while the Port Authority benefits from selling public land? Why must Mumbaikars be yet again deprived of social infrastructure, public open space and good quality public housing in the name of investment destinations for wealthy homeowners and businesses? Why must all of available land and its air rights be bestowed upon private landlords in exchange for a strip of beautification and the perilous prospect of reclaimed land? And finally, why should all this land be monetised for no clear social and economic benefit to the city?

Unlike the case of the sale of the mill lands, the route taken by the Mumbai Port Trust may be different, but the city is headed for the same treacherous outcome. Unless, of course, the people of Mumbai demand their land back.

Hussain Indorewala teaches planning theory, housing and humanities at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.