The human zoo: Mumbai's new animal park can't hide our chronic lack of space

When a penguin imported from Seoul died in quarantine recently, it only heightened Mumbaikars’ frustration at expansion plans for their beleaguered zoo – in a city where public space remains a rare commodity

Rani Baug means “Queen’s Garden”; the queen being Victoria, after whom this verdant 48-acre Mumbai sprawl was named in 1861. Originally established as a botanical garden, it became one of India’s first zoos – and is now caught up in an empress-sized controversy.

As part of a hare-brained, Rs 450m ($6.7m) redevelopment project, last July eight Humboldt penguins were imported from Seoul to take up residence in the zoo. The recent death of one of the penguins, an 18-month-old female called Dory, has only exacerbated what was an unpopular project from the start.

Mumbaikars’ original complaints were twofold: the unsuitability of the penguins’ new home in tropical Mumbai, and the administration’s shortcomings. The zoo’s inventory is now seriously depleted, the big cats having succumbed to old age and loneliness, and there are a depressing number of abandoned cages. The Jijamata Udyan – as it was renamed in 1969 fulfils neither of a zoo’s objectives of education and recreation.

Responding to accusations of inadequate cooling and cramped space in the penguins’ quarantine hold, the zoo’s director, Dr Sanjay Tripathi, maintained he had followed the manual provided by authorised zoological associations. Dory was not separated from the colony when she fell ill, Tripathi said, because this would have “added to her stress”.

The imported penguin chicks in their quarantine pool in Mumbai

Despite Dory’s death, Tripathi is insisting on going ahead with another showpiece: the zoo expansion project, budgeted at Rs 1.5bn ($22.5m). In the congested central Mumbai neighbourhood of Byculla, a seven-acre African savannah will roll out, replete with zebras, giraffes and ostriches.

Yet it is Mumbai’s beleaguered common people, not exotic African species, who desperately need the space to run free. These seven prodigal acres should be more democratically deployed, rather than becoming one more exclusive recreational zone in this neglected city.

The zoo is controlled by the Brihanmumbai (Greater Mumbai) Municipal Corporation (BMC), which, despite a budget larger than some Indian states, has presided over the scandalous deterioration of what was, as recently as the 1980s, still Urbs Primus in Indis (“India’s primary city”, as the plaque on the city’s Gateway of India monument puts it).

Rather than an African savannah, the BMC could put these useful millions towards fixing quotidian and long-term infrastructure problems. The earmarked plot is part of a defunct cotton mill which still supports a rich ecosystem in its old trees and waterbodies. It’s a rare inner-city opportunity considering that most mill lands have now been overtaken by a concrete-and-glass jungle.

The politician/builder nexus is the acknowledged villain in the urban tragedy that is Mumbai. Real estate is the new money spinner of the City of Gold, which got its cachet from those early cotton mills. A skyline once presided over by benevolent chimneys is now pierced by rapacious cranes.

Mumbai’s population pressure has squeezed open space to just 1.28 sq metres per citizen.
Mumbai’s population pressure has squeezed open space to just 1.28 sq metres per citizen. Photograph: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

With real-estate prices spiralling even in distant, grotty suburbs, any greening project appears dead on arrival. Open space has been squeezed to just 1.28 sq metres per citizen – and even this figure is mocked by the law of averages.

Large tracts of playgrounds and public parks have been corralled for the privileged; many clubs built on reserved plots are owned by politicians for whom rules are bent. Endemic encroachment swallows another chunk; neglect and anti-social behaviour does the rest. The young and the old are the worst off as a result, but even long-married couples have nowhere to escape from their claustrophobic lives for a snatch of togetherness.

The new, rapacious Draft Development Plan might as well be called “the Developer Plan”. On its own reckoning, the total demand for open spaces by 2034 will be 5,116 hectares – yet it provides for only 3,525 hectares, including both the present and the proposed. This means 2.76 sq metres of open space per person – twice the current allotment, but still far below the modest four-metre national standard. Moreover, “open space” is itself a cover-up: the meaningful term should be “freely accessible open space”.

PK Das, the activist architect recently awarded one of the first international Jane Jacobs medals, condemns the DPP as the “exact opposite” of how cities should be envisioned. “It clearly undermines the interests of minimum open spaces required for physical quality of life and the environment,” he says.

According to Das, the most sinister aspect is section 33 of the Development Control Rules (DCR), which covers all concessions that can be granted. “This will densify the built environment further and reduce meaningful open spaces from the required 15-20% to 8%,” he warns.

It’s inevitable that as cities expand, public space contracts in physical and democratic terms, but Das speaks of a “double-sword attack ... The authorities don’t want to regularise the 500 acres of reserved open space which has been encroached upon, but don’t know how to reclaim it.”

Hippo in Mumbai zoo
From 2010-11, 160 birds and animals reportedly died at the zoo in Byculla, Mumbai. Photograph: Hindustan Times/via Getty Images

Mumbai’s urban rot began with the redevelopment of its mill lands, covering 600 acres in the heart of the city. To favour mill owners and developers, the ruling chief minister unilaterally “tweaked” DCR 58 in 2001, so that instead of all the land being shared equally by the owners, the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority and the BMC, now only “vacant, open spaces” on these mill lands came under the tripartite formula. Instead of the expected 166 acres, the city got less than 58. The public was cheated of the promised open spaces; the former millworkers were deprived of long-awaited housing. Only the owners, developers and their patrons made a killing.

Later came the proposed opening up of 800 acres of Mumbai Port Trust land on 28km of the eastern waterfront. Most Mumbaikars had never heard of it, let alone seen it, though it stretches right behind the old commercial and residential areas.

In 2014, plans were put forward by various stakeholders, among them environmentalists wanting to preserve the oil-slicked mudflats which still attract 140 varieties of birds, including the migrant pink flamingos. But there seems to be no sign of an integrated, democratic redevelopment – which is a colossal pity, because the now-unseen sea could open up its aesthetic and therapeutic benefits to the middle and poorer classes living in its vicinity.

Instead, there have been waves of notifications exempting bays and creeks from the Coastal Regulation Zone, and reducing the ban on construction from 500m from the high-tide line to a pointless 100m.

Thus the zoo’s exotic penguins and giraffes may find themselves better off than ordinary Mumbaikars desperate for a breath of free, fresh air in green and open spaces. Everyone is deprived: kids, grandparents, parents, and – that object of widespread indignant rage – “kuppals” (young couples in need of togetherness).

But here’s an amusing twist: the Five Gardens are an unbelievable oasis in central Mumbai’s congested Dadar. Here, elderly residents of the surrounding Parsi colony would sit in convivial huddles each evening on the wooden benches – as did those kuppals.

Unfortunately, their “shameless” canoodling so offended the local municipal authority that it ordered the lovely old benches be pulled out, to be replaced by ugly concrete single-seaters. This deprived the fading members of an ageing community of their daily warmth and companionship. And what of the offending couples? Ah, they loved the change, because now they could get on with their business sitting on each other’s laps.

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Bachi Karkaria in Mumbai

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