The Transformation of Girgaum Chowpatty Beach

The time is upon us again when the City gears up to celebrate the arrival of Lord Ganesh. Mumbai celebrates with great fervor this annual festival lasting 10 days!

Particularly during these days, our attention is automatically drawn to the City’s beaches during the duration of the festival. On earmarked days the immersion of the Deities takes place and the beaches naturally take centre-stage. Arguably the most famous beach is the Girgaum Chowpatty Beach.

 

Ganpati Immersion at Chowpatty, Bombay (1909)

Ganpati Immersion at Chowpatty, Bombay (1909)

 

Just as the City of Mumbai has transformed over the years so has our Girgaum Chowpatty Beach. The beach which has always been a meeting place of the Citizens was at its worst in the 90’s.

The transformation of Girgaum Chowpatty Beach is an excellent example of how success can be achieved in the case of an open space/beach. This success was possible by engaging all stakeholders and by partnering with the administration and thereby making the system work successfully.

The matter of Girgaum Chowpatty Beach was not a PIL but Writ Petitions of 1998, and 2000 filed by a group of stall owners known as Bhelwallas against the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and the State Government. These Bhelwallas, were engaged in the business of selling food items such as bhelpuri, panipuri, ice-cream etc.

The location of the bhell stalls prior to the present litigation was haphazard, obstructed the view of the sea from the road and did not permit optimum use of the beach for the public. The petitioners had challenged the MCGM, which had wanted to beautify the beach and had demolished the bhell stalls. This matter had been in litigation for many years prior to 2001.

 

Bhelpuri Vendors at the 'Sea Face Fair' around 1960

Bhelpuri Vendors at the ‘Sea Face Fair’ around 1960

 

Apart from the bhell stalls there were some other built structures on the beach such as MAFCO and Anando, which were also into food business and a water fountain structure opposite the Wilson College in the middle of the beach. This particular water fountain structure was being used for many anti-social activities including prostitution. Scattered on the beach there were also sunshades, which were also being misused.

On 7th February 2001 the Judges of the Bombay High Court, Justice A. P. Shah (who is now heading the Law Commission of India) and Justice S. J. Vazifdar, in whose court the matter was listed, decided that they would visit the beach and see and understand for themselves the actual state of affairs. As per the Judges desire, I along with some others and the Senior MCGM officials including the then Additional Municipal Commissioner (City) and Collector City walked with the Judges on the beach that day.

The Judges thereafter conducted hearings and passed their judgement on 16th March 2001. In this judgement, the Plan of relocating the bhellwalls and Anando into a Bhel Plaza and formation of the “Committee For The Improvement Of Girgaum Chowpatty Beach” was passed with the direction to the Committee as follows –

“The above Committee will be overall in charge of ensuring the implementation of the scheme as well as for the preservation and beautification of Chowpatty beach. In case of any difficulty, liberty is given to approach this court for direction.” Quoted from the order of the High Court.

The Committee set about its task by formulating a Master Plan document containing the overall zoning and uses as follows:

1. Sandy Beach

2. Green parks

3. Children’s Playing Equipment Areas

4. Club and Restaurant – Mafatlal Club

5. Entertainment and Social Hall – Birla Kreeda Kendra

6. Water Sports at Choti Chowpatty

8. Slum Encroachments

9. Bombay Port Trust Station

10. Rocky Zone (adjoining the road leading to Walkeshwar northwards)

This Master Plan was submitted to the Court and was approved by the Bench. Based on this Master Plan the work of the Committee progressed and orders related to the Rules and Usage of the beach was passed by the Court through its various orders over the years.

 

As a consequence of the orders of the High Court and based on the approved Master Plan, the following measures were put in place over time:

1. The long standing problem between the Bhelwallas was settled and a Bhel Plaza was put in place at the far southern end of the beach. All the stalls are of a uniform standard design, thereby ensuring harmony and accord amongst the bhellwallas.

2. The realignment of the stalls perpendicular to the road resulted in a large stretch of the beach being uncluttered and releasing an unobstructed view of the sea from the road.

3. Unauthorized hawkers are forbidden to ply their trade on the beach.

4. The whole beach has been put under the jurisdiction one police station i.e. D.B.Marg with a permanent Police Chowky for better policing of the beach. Earlier the beach was under the jurisdiction of two police stations causing great hardship to complainants and also to the police.

5. No commercial activities are allowed on the beach.

6. No political rallies or meetings are allowed. In fact except for two specific functions, no other functions are allowed. This allows the general public to enjoy the beach without any hindrances.

7. No further greenery is allowed, thereby maintaining the character of the beach.

8. No further statues or structures are allowed.

9. The northern end of the beach has been developed into a viewing point with the Mumbai skyline depicted in a steel plate. This area is commonly known as the “storm signal area” and has the original storm signal (a heritage structure) which is still in use.

10. Unwanted structures were demolished to completely open up the sea view and make the beach uncluttered.

11. Only five original fishermen are allowed to fish in the bay, but do not have the right to stay. They can keep their fishing nets and other equipment in the designated place.

12. The beach cannot be fenced except on the side of the bhel plaza and the existing gardens.

13. An alternate drinking water facility has been provided.

14. The public toilet was revamped and facilities improved for better usage.

 

Whilst most of the issues have been dealt with, there remains the most vexatious land usage issue of Choti Chowpatty. I will elaborate on this issue in a separate article.

Unfortunately, now after many years, in the northern area of the beach some vagrants and unauthorized fishermen, not the original five fishermen, have made temporary settlements.

Very urgent action is now required to be taken to remove these settlements and the concerned Authorities need to coordinate and take collective action.

The cement structure at the northern end of the beach (at the turning to Babulnath), on which stands the “storm signal” from the British times, and the “anchor” gifted by the Indian Navy, is in a very structurally unsafe condition. In this case we see the lack of coordination between State and Local Bodies.

Now the challenge lies in getting the coordination on track and work completed at the earliest.

As the oldest Member in the “Committee For The Improvement Of Girgaum Chowpatty Beach”, I do feel, as do my fellow Members, that through Consultation and Not Confrontation, all of us have been able to achieve most of the targets. However, challenges are always around the corner and it must be faced and overcome.

Our challenge in respect to the northern end of the beach, the vagrants as well as the unauthorized fishermen, is set to once again test that truly, the “System Works”.

 

The Author, Indrani Malkani, is the Managing Trustee of V Citizens Action Network (VCAN) and is an Ashoka Fellow