An aerial view of the Hanging Gardens in Malabar Hill, Mumbai
Pervin Sanghvi has been a resident of Malabar Hill in South Mumbai for three-and-a-half decades. The Hanging Gardens, aka the Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens, is located in the area and is an iconic landmark. When tourists come to Mumbai, this is an item in the list of places to visit. Not just local residents, families across the metropolis come here for outings. The first Indian short film, of a wrestling match, was shot here in 1896. And, yet, not many in Mumbai know that there is a reservoir beneath the garden that supplies water to South Mumbai. Even Sanghvi was unaware of it. It was only two years ago, during the lockdown, when she used to go for walks there, that she noticed some structures and became curious enough to ask around. “Amazing, isn’t it [that such a reservoir exists unknown]? If you read Wikipedia, the garden was actually made on the reservoir to offset the pollutants from the Parsi Tower of Silence, where their dead bodies are kept, a little away,” she says.
Somewhere around the beginning of this year, she came across an article in a newspaper that the reservoir needed to be repaired and 40 trees would have to be cut for it. Despite being an environmentalist, it didn’t ring alarm bells. But then a few months later, she came across another newspaper article that said 389 trees would have to be cut. She started digging more into the issue and the full picture slowly dawned. According to her, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had not been holding consultations or informing residents about the plan. Bits and pieces of it had been coming in the media but no one really knew what it entailed. And then all of a sudden recently, they came to know that the Hanging Gardens was going to be shut down for seven years till the reservoir was not repaired, but reconstructed.
Sanghvi was also puzzled. Because the Hanging Gardens doesn’t really have a very dense tree cover and couldn’t tally the number. She went looking. After coming out of the gate, she took a right turn, went to the back along the peripheral wall and there saw magnificent trees, many more than 100 years old, which had notices pasted on them. “That’s where all the dense foliage is. Inside the Hanging Gardens, you will not see them. They are smaller trees. The ones with the deep roots are all outside. We live on a very old hill [Malabar Hill]. A landslide happened in 2020 because of a manmade error. We have to be very careful about what we do on this hill,” she says.
The opposition to the reconstruction of the reservoir stems from two fronts. One, closing the garden affects the quality of life of people because the garden is a beautiful green lung of the locality. The second is the environmental aspect, the large number of trees that would be cut and cause pollution like dust, etc, as the project gets underway. That is how Zoru Bhathena, who was earlier a key activist in the agitation against the cutting of trees in Aarey Colony for the construction of a Metro shed there, got involved. He has been part of meetings with the government asking for a reconsideration of the project. One such was with the guardian minister of Mumbai Deepak Kesarkar, who promised support. Later, in a press conference, he stated that he would try to push for the project to happen without the closure of the Hanging Gardens and would also request the chief minister to intervene. Earlier, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, another minister and the local MLA of the area, had at a meeting of citizens with the BMC, also suggested alternatives by making the reservoir in another place altogether, in land acquired for the coastal road, and forming a committee of citizens along with the BMC to monitor the project. The BMC had professed to be open-minded.
Citizens and environmentalists say that the minimum the BMC could do is have a fresh audit to see if repairs can be a solution. The alternative would be the absence of an iconic garden whose identity is interwoven with Mumbai’s
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But Bhathena is not so sure. He says everyone in the government say all the right things but it doesn’t translate into concrete action. He claims that the entire reason for the project—that the reservoir is too damaged to be repaired and has to be reconstructed—is not a given. “Nobody has said that the tank cannot be repaired,” he says. The BMC relies on a 2017 report by a structural auditor for the reconstruction but Bhathena says that the auditor was not asked to look into whether it could be repaired. “The BMC has said that the tank is 140 years old, so we want to remake it. Just being 140 years old cannot be a reason. If age could be the reason, then we would not have the BMC headquarters, the High Court building, the Rajabai clock tower. Everything over 100 years old would be demolished. They had appointed a structural consultant in 2017 who inspected and audited the reservoir. His report shows that the reservoir is in very fair condition for a 140-year-old structure.” Bhathena says that other consultants appointed by the BMC were also not asked to look into repair as an option. A complaint letter signed by him and 27 others, mainly residents of the area, says: “On plain reading of this Structural Report it says that the structure is old, but in reasonable condition [based on every test conducted]. Nowhere does the report state that the existing reservoir is in dangerous or dilapidated condition. Nowhere does it say that the floor or the holding walls of the reservoir are weak. Nowhere does it state that there are any leaks. All it says is that a new reservoir needs to be planned to take over eventually.”
The other contention of those protesting against the closure, besides the fact that repair was never considered, is that alternative sites for having the reservoir was also not looked into. Those who are going to be impacted in the area have been trying to mobilise public support. Sanghvi says that there is an attempt to paint them as elitist choosing their lifestyles over something as necessary as water but that is wrong. “Water is a basic need. Where are we saying no to that? We are saying get the reservoir repaired and that will not mean cutting off nearly 400 trees. Do the augmentation of water capacity somewhere else. Consult knowledgeable, learned people and come up with a collaborative effort. We don’t have dearth of industry giants who can assist in this,” she says.
The BMC has been holding public meetings to explain their stand. In one such meeting towards the end of September, some warned of intensifying the agitation. The Hindustan Times reported: “Emotions ran high during the meeting, with some residents threatening to carry out a ‘Chipko Movement’ [hug the trees] and even move court. ‘Please remove the notices from the trees. Even the trees can feel them. Scrap this proposal,’ said a highly charged resident.” The BMC’s argument at the meeting was that constructing a reservoir at an alternative site was possible but what made it impractical was creating the distribution system. If they did the reconstruction in one-go, it would have to mean stopping water supply altogether to large parts of South Mumbai. Therefore, they are forced to do piecemeal reconstruction, and hence the extended time period involved.
As of now, it seems to be at an impasse. While the BMC does not refuse to take into consideration the viewpoints of those protesting, its mind seems made up. Meanwhile, citizens and environmentalists say that the minimum the civic body could do is have a fresh audit to see if repairs can be a solution. The alternative would be the absence of an iconic garden whose identity is interwoven with Mumbai’s. At its heart is also the distrust that civil society has for government when it comes to public projects. Mumbai’s open spaces have been shrinking for decades with public lands having been encroached upon by not just the poor slumdweller, but also those with political connections like the builder lobby. Bhathena says the initial cost was projected at around `200 crore but has now ballooned to `700 crore. “When such big amounts of money are concerned, nobody is going to stop it voluntarily. There has to be either a public outcry or somebody else has to stop it,” says Bhathena. There is also the certainty that any timeline is just an optimistic estimate. The city has a poor record of meeting the deadline of any project. If seven years is what is being stated, the Hanging Gardens could be closed for much longer.