Volume 24 - Issue 02 :: Jan. 27-Feb. 09, 2007
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Builders' envy


The Port Trust is the biggest landowner in Mumbai, and the State government wants some of its land to ease the city's congestion.


A view of the Mumbai port.

A HALFWAY decent apartment in South Mumbai costs, on an average, Rs.30,000 a square foot. Ironically, even if there is someone willing to pay that price, there are no apartments available for sale. Mumbai may be witnessing its biggest-ever real estate boom, but there is no land to be had, at least none that the city owns. The Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) owns the largest chunk of property in the island city - approximately 1,800 acres (720 hectares) on the east coast, stretching from Colaba in the southern tip to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay. The land, said to constitute one-eighth of the total area of the city, has docks, almost 100 km of railroads, warehouses, mudflats, marshlands, saltpans, oil storage facilities and houses for Port Trust employees.

Although most of the land is used by the port or has been leased to the Navy and private establishments, large tracts lie unused. There are abandoned warehouses and other buildings and encroachments such as hutments and illegal cottage industries on this land.

For years the state and builders have eyed the land. The State government sees the land as a way to ease the congestion in the city, and non-governmental organisations have proposed various plans to develop the unused spaces, but the MbPT would not consider opening it up for development. Until recently, that is.

In March 2006, the MbPT board decided to frame a policy for the use of its land. Among several guidelines is one that allows earmarking of "the area(s) which can be used for commercial exploitation for augmentation of budgetary resources". It also recommended a separate perspective plan for the waterfront area. More recently, there have been meetings between the State government, which believes that the MbPT is planning a massive expansion, and the Union Ministry of Shipping. The Chief Minister has also written to the Ministry requesting it to keep the State government and the Municipal Corporation informed of these plans.

"Not enough land"

"Mumbai does not have enough land and there is a huge housing shortage," says Sanjay Ubale, special officer in charge of Mumbai. "All that the State government is asking is that if the port is planning any expansion it should keep the government informed as any form of development on that land will put more pressure on Mumbai."

Citizens' groups and the State government see the MbPT's decision to have a policy on using its land as a major move. The MbPT caused quite a stir among realtors when it sold a few pieces of small property. Also, a claim by a senior MbPT officer to a web site that around 4 lakh sq ft of land may be put up for sale had the effect of setting the cat among the pigeons. "Clearly there is some activity in this area. We need to understand what they are planning," says Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the Urban Development and Research Institute (UDRI), Mumbai.

Last year about 600 acres (240 ha) of prime land owned by the National Textile Corporation (NTC) and private mills was auctioned at staggering prices to leading builders. An area that once housed working class people now sports high-end residential towers, malls and commercial complexes catering to a minute segment of Mumbai's heaving population.

This situation came about after the State government dismissed a comprehensive development plan created by a group of unions, urban planners and activists and amended the urban planning Act to facilitate auction of the land. Citizens' groups filed a public interest petition against the sale of the lands but lost the case in the Supreme Court, and since then there has been no looking back for builders.

"The MbPT owns over 1,800 acres of land, which includes 28 kilometres of waterfront area. If they do open up without a comprehensive plan, it will be catastrophic for the island city," says Joshi, who has done an independent study on MbPT land. The MbPT was apparently upset with his report, which it believes is factually incorrect.

"This is the most coveted bit of land in the city," says Joshi. "Since the port is virtually on a decline, the Central and State governments should take a decision on the unused land. It can do wonders for Mumbai." Other port cities such as Rotterdam, New York and London have successfully shifted and integrated their old ports into the main city. Mumbai could do it too, he believes. "However we need to be alert to what our lawmakers want to do with the land," he says.

The land is sought after because it is well connected to all the major hubs in the city, such as the business district of Nariman Point, inner-city markets and housing and the erstwhile industrial lands of Parel and Lalbaugh.

Realising the importance of the walled-in port property, the State government set up a task force in October 2002. Nothing came of it. In June 2004, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) commissioned the UDRI, along with the Kamala Raheja Vidhyanidhi Institute, to put together a vision plan for the area. "The issue has been stonewalled by port officials," says Joshi.

Essentially, the study says the de-industrialisation of Mumbai city and specific changes in port-related activities of the eastern waterfront call for changes in the use of MbPT land. The study, having mapped almost the entire stretch of land, questions the need for the port in the city. It argues that ever since manufacturing industries shifted out of Mumbai, there has been a decline in the use of the port. Furthermore, there are technological and physical shortcomings such as the low draught, which does not allow over-dimensional vessels to dock. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, which was built on the mainland across from Mumbai, now handles a large amount of traffic that once used the MbPT.

"No move to sell"

While calling for a change in land use, the study cautions lawmakers against adopting concepts blindly from the Western world - such as high-end residential and leisure-based activities. "That kind of use will benefit very few and that is not our intention," says Joshi.

The MbPT denied categorically any move to sell or redevelop its land. In an interview to Frontline, MbPT Deputy Chairman Ashok Kumar Bal said: "We have no land to spare. The MbPT has huge expansion plans in the pipeline. So we need the land ourselves."

Bal denied that the MbPT needed money and said the port was doing exceptionally well. The MbPT handled 44.6 million tonnes of cargo in 2005-2006, which was its highest ever, he said. "We have already handled 38 million tonnes this year and are poised to cross 50 million tonnes. By 2011-12, the MbPT is expected to handle a volume of 71 million tonnes. So, whoever has any impression of the port declining is clearly not well informed," he said.

He pointed out that the MbPT's biggest advantage was that it was a multi-purpose port, handling mainly liquid, chemical, container, break bulk and dry bulk shipments. "The MbPT plays a very important role in handling crude and petroleum cargo for this region," he added.

The MbPT does not want to be drawn into a battle between the State government and other agencies over the land it owns. He said the perception that the port occupied large areas of open space that were otherwise needed for the city was incorrect. Moreover, what would happen to the 25,000 people who worked in the port if the land was used for other activities, he asked.

Admittedly the port does have a physical constraint of draught depth. But the MbPT is investing Rs.1,228 crores to set up an offshore container terminal, which will handle big ships, and also to deepen the approach channel.

He said the MbPT was expanding, but it realised its responsibility to Mumbai and was doing what it could to help the city. For instance, to ease the pressure on the city's congested rail and road infrastructure, the MbPT has planned a Wadala-Kurla freight line. The port has given the government permission to use its land to construct a freeway from South Mumbai to the Eastern Expressway. It has also given permission for the Mumbai Trans Harbour link from Sewree to Nhava Shewa to run through 11 km of its property. The port is also working with the State government to develop a passenger terminal and ferry service on the eastern waterfront to other points in the harbour. "The port has served the nation for more than two centuries; it will not shirk its responsibility so easily," said Bal.

Initiated in 1750 by the East India Company when it realised that the Eastern coast of the island was a perfect natural harbour, the MbPT has been, in several ways, responsible for Mumbai's growth and prosperity. As the port developed, so did the city. Industries came up rapidly on account of the port and trade flourished. The port was at its peak until 1925. By then the MbPT had also reclaimed large tracts of land on the eastern front. It eventually became not only the biggest landowner but also the biggest landlord in Mumbai. Several huge pieces of property, such as Taj Mahal Hotel near the Gateway of India, are on long lease from the MbPT.

Indeed, the port is far from declining, as a drive through it showed. There are empty warehouses, but there is a fair amount of activity as well. There seems to be enough land that can be shared in a manner that can benefit the city. But is there the will to do it?

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