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Attacks will not scare us off'

Print edition : Sep 10, 2010 T+T-
Nayana Kathpalia: We have been waging a battle to preserve Mumbai's reserved open spaces.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Nayana Kathpalia: We have been waging a battle to preserve Mumbai's reserved open spaces.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Interview with Nayana Kathpalia of CitiSpace, an NGO in Mumbai.

ONE day earlier this year, a man rang the doorbell at Nayana Kathpalia's apartment in Mumbai's Oval Maidan area. When the domestic help opened the small grill door, the man fired a few shots from a gun and fled. The shots were meant for Kathpalia, an activist at the forefront of a campaign for the preservation of open spaces in Mumbai. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured.

Until now there has been no breakthrough in the case. Among the many conclusions drawn is that Kathpalia, who works for CitiSpace (Citizens' Forum for Protection of Public Spaces), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works primarily on urban policies for Greater Mumbai, could have vexed some land sharks in the battle to preserve open public spaces.

CitiSpace has documented and collated material on Mumbai's public open spaces that are slowly being encroached upon and will eventually be developed to be sold.

Kathpalia says it is unfortunate that people can get away with these attacks and that it is a blot on the country's democracy. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

You have been a victim of an attack. There has been no breakthrough in the case. Do you have any inkling of who could have been behind it?

On January 8, 2010, the day of the shooting, my colleague Neera Punj received a threatening call saying take back WP/152 one of the cases that are in court. It is an SRA [Slum Rehabilitation Authority] case and we [CitiSpace] are fighting several of these.

Going by these threats, it could be anyone who is unhappy with us because we have filed cases and public interest litigation (PIL) petitions that have stalled their projects. The SRA projects are very big and we are not against them. We just want to ensure that the rules are followed. For instance, the rule relating to the percentage of land that is meant to be kept for open spaces such as garden and recreational activities.

Also, at that time we were involved in the restoration of Cross Maidan, and several hawkers around that area had been evicted on the basis of our petition. The attack could have come from anyone who was upset with us. We have given the police all the information on our cases. It's up to them to trace the attackers.

Of late the frequency of attacks on activists has increased. What in your view are the steps that should be taken to address these attacks?

A few days after the attack on us, an RTI activist, Satish Shetty, was hacked to death in Talegaon. The Bombay High Court immediately issued suo motu orders to the Maharashtra government and the State police to probe the killing and define steps to protect social workers and PIL activists in the State.

The police were told to be more sensitive to complaints made by activists, and police stations were sent circulars to take these complaints seriously. However, unless there are thousands of them, you cannot make a dent. The good thing is NGOs are keeping up the effort to make sure activists are protected. The last time a big gathering of activists was seen was post 26/11. It's not that citizens don't want to come out. It's just that it requires a bigger number to cause an impact.

These are blatant attacks to scare those who speak out. It does not say much for democracy. Why should we fear opposing a big project because of the muscle power behind it?

We fight for what we believe in, and these sorts of attacks will not scare us off. Now Neera and I have to walk with the bodyguards the police have given us. But that is also no solution.

Moreover, taking everything to court is also no solution to our city's problems. They are not resolution makers or the ones who run the city. The courts should not be bogged down with administrative issues. If our administrators and politicians made the right policies, we would not need to involve the courts.

All this stems from greed and from politics that has become a dirty game. It's all speed money and horrible greed.

Tell us about your campaign, the SRA PIL, and the kind of work CitiSpace is involved in. Why is your work a threat to some people?

We began in a naive way. In 1997 a group of us who live in this area decided to start a clean-up Churchgate campaign. You may recall that the road from Churchgate station to LIC was filled with hawkers. We wanted the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) to implement the 1985 Supreme Court order on regulating hawking in cities. We worked with the Municipal Corporation for 18 months on this. We made some headway, but clearly not enough, and eventually filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court.

It has been more than a decade since we started this campaign and Mumbai's streets still remain cluttered with hawkers. We have nothing against them and believe they need to earn a livelihood, but this can be done in regulated zones, as is the practice in other countries. Even the hawkers are willing to listen to us but say their leaders are causing problems.

CitiSpace does not believe in taking on projects. We look at policy and how policy can be implemented for the betterment of the entire city. We have divided our work ward-wise, like the Municipal Corporation, and we work according to the specifics of each ward.

Public open spaces are for the common people. We have been waging a battle saying that the city's reserved open spaces must be preserved. We also want a complete repeal of the caretaker policy, which allows private clubs to use public space and then be selective on entry. The Matoshree Club in Jogeshwari is one such club that has come up on public grounds, and we have challenged that.

The SRA is a contentious issue. Essentially, the SRA is empowered to take over for slum rehabilitation any land deemed to be a slum. Dwellings built before January 1, 1995, have been regularised and will be rehabilitated where they stand, in most cases. Several private companies obviously showed interest in the development of the slums as most are located on prime property.

What was also alarming was an SRA notification that said that if a reserved space had been encroached on by 25 per cent, then an SRA scheme was applicable in that space. This meant that of the total open land, 33.3 per cent would be given for slum rehabilitation, 33.3 per cent to a builder for free sale and 33.3 per cent would be retained by the MCGM as recreational grounds. How can you do this when you are running horribly short of open spaces?

The Supreme Court came out with an excellent interim order in 2002, which was ratified in 2003. It said no new SRA scheme would be permitted without its approval. Each scheme would have to come to court before it was cleared. Till date nine schemes have been rejected and four accepted.

The latest battle has been against one scheme that involves Machimar Nagar near Cuffe Parade. Along with that has been the fight against the dilution of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules. If the dilution happens, Mumbai will be in big trouble.

Much of the issues we tackle are about land and, as I said, we started naively not realising that while it is a volatile subject it is also very dangerous.