Land eight times the size of Nariman Point

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With the Bombay High Court setting aside the sale of mill lands, are the doors closing for developers with an eye on huge profits? Shashi Ashiwal
With the Bombay High Court setting aside the sale of mill lands, are the doors closing for developers with an eye on huge profits? Shashi Ashiwal

D. Murali

MONEY buys land, and wives are sold by fate, wrote the Bard in Merry Wives of Windsor. But it looks like the fate of land sales is bleak considering how NTC's plans have crash-landed. The day's hot topic, therefore, is about the `cooling off' of Mumbai's real-estate market as a result of the October 17 decision of the Bombay High Court in the National Textile Corporation (NTC) case. But, first, what was the case about?

"The above Petition has been filed in larger public interest, to protect the interests of residents of Mumbai and to improve the quality of life in Mumbai, which has drastically deteriorated during the last fifteen years," begins the 368-page judgment of Justice Dr S. Radhakrishnan, along with Mr Justice S. C. Dharmadhikari.

The PIL (public interest litigation) Writ Petition No. 482 of 2005 case had Bombay Environmental Action Group (a public charitable trust) and its secretary Shyam H. K. Chainani as petitioners, and 32 names as respondents. These included the State of Maharashtra, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, along with labour unions such as the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh and the Girni Kamgar Karmachari Rozgar Sanghatana.

Apart from NTC, other mills too were in the fray as, for instance, Hindoostan Spinning & Weaving, Mafatlal Industries, Bombay Dyeing, Swan and Simplex. Plus, there were real-estate players, such as Morarjee Realties (formerly The Morarjee Goculdas Spinning & Weaving Co), Godrej Properties, K. Raheja Corp, Sheth Developers, and Indiabulls Properties.

The petition sought to prevent "further serious damage to the town planning and ecology so as to avoid an irretrievable breakdown of the city", and the text of the judgment cites `recent deluge during the last week of July this year' as the context.

Senior advocates who represented the Environmental Action Group (EAG) were I. M. Chagla, S. H. Doctor and N. H. Seervai. For the respondents, it was a whole battalion of legal professionals, as one can see in the list running to pages, beginning with G. E. Vahanwati, Solicitor-General of India, and Ravi Kadam, Advocate General.

According to Mr Chagla, the main thrust of the petition was to ensure `Open Spaces' for the city and to provide the crying need of space for `public housing'. "While it is true that in a developing country there shall have to be developments, but that development shall have to be in closest possible harmony with the environment, as otherwise there would be development but no environment, which would result in total devastation," is a quote of Mr Justice U.C. Banerjee from the decision in People United for Better Living in Calcutta vs State of W.B. that Mr Chagla cited.

"Nature will not tolerate us after a certain degree of its destruction and it will in any event, have its toll on the lives of the people," continues the ominous quote. "Can the present-day society afford to have such a state and allow the nature to take have its toll in future?" Justice Banerjee had asked and replied in the negative.

"The tragic events in Mumbai in the last week of July 2005 have shown that the environmental degradation in Mumbai has crossed nature's degree of tolerance," Mr Chagla said, referring to the price that the city paid during the recent deluge.

The main legal issue in the EAG's petition was `the true meaning and correct interpretation' of Development Control Regulation (DCR) No. 58 (as amended in 2001). It is titled `Development or redevelopment of lands of cotton textile mills' and begins with a discussion of `lands of sick and/or closed cotton textile mills'.

The Regulation stipulates the percentage of `open lands and balance FSI' (floor space index) to be earmarked for open spaces, public housing, and residential/ commercial purpose. One learns from the text of the judgment that it was in 2001 that the State Government lifted the 1996 prohibition on development of mill land. Accordingly, the Municipal Commissioner was free to grant development/re-development permissions strictly as per the modified provisions of DCR 58.

The judgment mentions 58, again, as the number of textile mills in Mumbai occupying `approximately 602 acres in the heart of the city'. Do you know that "the area comprising just 8 mills, known as the `Golden Triangle' is approximately 8.5 times the size of Nariman Point"? All the best, Mumbaikars! Oops, would that also include the `realty' companies keen as they are to extract the maximum return on every square inch of land?

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 19, 2005)
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