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Shiv Sena, BJP go to war over #OpenSpacePolicy. Prize is civic polls

Ashwin Aghor | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:27 IST

Maharashtra's ruling coalition partners, the BJP and the Shiv Sena, are at each others throats again. The bone of contention: the Open Space Policy.

What's the policy?

The policy lays down that open spaces such as "recreational grounds and playgrounds" owned by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, or MCGM, can be "given for adoption" for five years "against a deposit of Rs 25,000 per year".

It, however, allows "construction activities" on "only 15%" of the "adopted" land.

In this respect, the scheme is essentially an upgrade on the Caretaker Policy of 2007, which didn't limit construction on the "adopted" plots.

Also read: After Bihar betrayal, Shiv Sena wants to harm BJP nationally

The 2007 policy was widely opposed after many grounds were allegedly grabbed by trusts owned by politicians, including Vihar Sports Club, Borivli; MIG Club, Bandra; Matoshree Club, Jogeshwari; Ronson Foundation, Juhu; Wellington Club, Santacruz; Prabodhankar Thackeray Complex, Vile Parle; Prabodhankar Krida Bhavan, Goregaon.

Many of these open spaces have either been converted into clubs or fenced off by builders. The MCGM has sent notices to at least 216 "entities" which have "adopted such spaces".

Some of these "entities" have reportedly agreed to return the plots but only after the MCGM pays them the cost of "constructions they have made and maintenance" - which could easily run into crores of rupees.

Sources in the MCGM told Catch that "the plots were allotted two decades ago but are yet to be reclaimed by the civic authorities despite the expiry of the agreements".

As a result, a source said, "open spaces meant for the city's common residents have been grabbed by the rich and the influential".

The Open Space Policy, also known as the Adoption Policy, is reportedly a pet project of the Sena brass, especially Uddhav Thackeray. Not surprisingly, the party's leaders aggressively pushed it, and got it passed at the MCGM's General Body Meeting last week.

Why's it being contested?

The Sena's joy at getting the policy cleared was pretty short-lived. There was an uproar, with social activists claiming the policy would deprive Mumbai of all its open spaces.

The activist and former Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said it would be "nearly impossible to reclaim open spaces handed over to any entity after five years". "It will also create third party rights on the land, which would be even more disastrous. Civic bodies and governments should refrain from taking such decisions."

It's impossible to reclaim land given to any entity after 5 years: @shaileshgan on Open Space Policy

Third party rights would be created, for one, when the "entities" that adopt the land make constructions on it. They would retain rights to the property even if the land is returned to the civic body.

Given such criticism, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis directed the MCGM chief Ajoy Mehta not to implement the policy, outraging the Sena and further straining the already turbulent relationship with his ally.

In fact, the Sena is so furious at chief minister's intervention that Uddhav alleged that the BJP was taking revenge on his party for not supporting the Land Acquisition Bill.

Also read: Sena-BJP marriage is noisy, but it won't break anytime soon

"Since we do not have a clear majority in the MCGM, like the BJP does in the Lok Sabha, the policy was passed in consultation with the BJP and other allies. So, this politicisation of the issue is highly painful," Thackeray said.

Taking aim at his partner, he added, "The Open Space Policy is not like the Land Acquisition Bill, which was an attempt to help corporates to grab land and destroy poor farmers. Hence we dumped that bill in the dustbin."

The policy is aimed to help corporates grab the last remaining open spaces of Mumbai: Raj Thackeray

Rejecting allegations that the policy would rob Mumbai of its open spaces, Uddhav insisted that it would "protect unused open spaces with the help of citizens as it keeps the ownership with the civic body.

"The open spaces will always be accessible to the common man. We will oppose any effort to grab these lands," he added.

Is it just a BJP-Sena fight?

Now that the policy has run into rough weather, all political parties are out seeking credit for torpedoing it and "saving Mumbai's open spaces". The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is easily the most vocal.

The party has claimed that its chief Raj Thackeray was the first person to oppose the policy and demand intervention by the government. "We always opposed it. In our opinion, it is aimed at helping the builders and corporates to grab huge open spaces at prime locations across the city," said the MNS corporator Sandip Deshpande.

"The party will continue its fight to reclaim open spaces allotted to various entities. All these open spaces are under the control of big political leaders, while common citizens are being deprived of their use. We appeal them to return the land to the MCGM without forcing us to take legal action," he added.

Soon after the policy was approved by the MCGM, Raj had alleged that it was aimed at "helping corporates and certain other organisations to grab the last remaining open spaces of the city".

Also read: Adding injury to insult: is the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance headed for a split

"We will not let this happen. It is the matter of about 1,200 acres of open spaces in Mumbai."

The activists too have welcomed the government's decision to put the policy on hold.

"It is a good that the government has asked for a review of the policy," said Shailesh Gandhi.

"In my opinion, no third party should have a right on the city's open spaces, nor should they spend on maintenance of such spaces. The MCGM should maintain these spaces with citizens' groups monitoring and auditing its work. This is the only way to keep these spaces accessible to the common man."

Gandhi also urged the MCGM to "review the allotment of open spaces to various groups in the past and take back the land if there is violation of the agreement".

What's at stake?

What has particularly incensed the Sena is the BJP's "betrayal". According to the Sena, BJP corporators did not oppose the policy when it was tabled in the MCGM. It was only after the policy was approved that a BJP delegation, led by the legislator Ashish Shelar, called on the chief minister and appealed him to intervene, they alleged.

Fadnavis promptly "stayed" the policy and asked for it to be reviewed.

"They should have opposed the policy when it was tabled. They kept quiet when they should have registered their objections. This is a breach of trust," said Trishna Vishwasrao, the party's leader in the MCGM.

The Sena was hoping the policy would give it a boost ahead of the civic elections due next year. The polls are shaping up as an increasingly bitter contest between the Sena and the BJP to gain a majority in the MCGM, which they are ruling in alliance.

That's why Fadnavis' intervention rankles the Sena no end. "This is nothing but arm-twisting by the BJP using their strength in the state government," said Vishwasrao.

"The BJP is trying every trick to create hurdles in the way of the Shiv Sena. Earlier, they used this trick to derail the 'Pay & Park Policy' in Mumbai. Now, they have gone after the Open Space Policy."

She saw a conspiracy in Ashish Shelar meeting Raj Thackeray "just before going to the chief minister to demand scrapping of the policy". "There is a big conspiracy against the Sena. Everyone in Mumbai knows about the friendship of Shelar and Raj Thackeray."

"This decision of the chief minister," said a senior Sena leader who did not want to be named. "might prove fatal for the alliance."

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone

Also read: Divided they fall short: Sena & BJP suffer due to split in Kalyan-Dombivli

First published: 21 January 2016, 21:04 IST