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Monday, 19 March 2012

Gateway not quite a getaway

by Clara LewisClara Lewis, TNN | Mar 18, 2012, 06.27AM IST

The Gateway of India stretch is a pedestrian plaza today. But four years ago, before its makeover, the plaza area was a narrow strip. The garden on the plaza was large with lawns, but barricaded. Parking was chaotic and a toilet block was bang in the middle of it. While all this is in the past and more space has been created for people to enjoy the waterfront, the quality of the historical precinct's restoration was dented by ego clashes and government interference , rue residents. The government also restricted public movement in some areas after 26/11.

Several of those involved or affected by the redevelopment process have called it either a "disappointment" or a "bitter" experience. "They chopped off a lot of trees, the lawns were destroyed, the parking is gone. Today we cannot walk there; tourist vehicles are parked in bylanes and there is horrendous noise even in the afternoons. It's a total mess," said Meher Sanjana , a resident and member of the Colaba-Cuffe Parade Residents' Association.

The Gateway of India-a remnant of the Raj-is a historic monument, not just in Mumbai but across the country . While regular visitors to the Gateway who live in the vicinity agreed that the redevelopment had increased plaza space, "the quality of work is not half as good as Marine Drive," said a resident requesting anonymity.

The residents' association had opposed the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) plan prepared by architect P K Das. They had wanted a combination of the INTACH and Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) plan prepared by architect Charles Correa.

Tasneem Mehta, vicechairman , INTACH, said the government had implemented the restoration project and they had no control over it. "The quality of work is not good. We did the Bhau Daji Lad Museum where we raised the funds and were able to deliver an extraordinarily high quality of work. There are constraints working with government contractors. You have no control as you are not signing the cheques. I am disappointed with the way the work was executed, though we tried very hard," she said.

The idea to restore the Gateway was mooted by the UDRI, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the BMC. The Indian Merchants' Chamber had offered to pay for the restoration as it was its centenary year. UDRI asked Correa to draw up a restoration plan. Around the time the plan was presented to the BMC and the heritage committee approved it, INTACH said it was the plan Correa had prepared for them in the '90s. But UDRI maintained that the new plan drawn up by Correa was different . This led to a bitter battle between the two groups and the state stepped in.

INTACH, in the meantime , approached Das to prepare an alternate plan. The state set up an empowered committee to go through the two plans, and selected Das's plan. The BMC was to bear the expenditure. As the plan was being implemented, it was chopped and changed several times by officials.

As per the initial INTACH plan, the ticket-vending kiosks for ferry tickets and food stalls were to be set up under a raised garden. However, the government decided against it as the MHCC had raised objections . The raised garden was to be like an amphitheatre that would have provided a magnificent view of the monument and the sea as well as accommodate amenities underneath. "We still managed three little tiers. Our weather does not permit an open plaza, you need shaded gardens. We could not avoid the visual block due to space constraints, that is why we thought of the raised garden," said Mehta.

The historic monument is a terror target. On August 25, 2003, a bomb exploded at the Gateway, killing 16 people. The plaza witnessed terror on November 26, 2008, when four gunmen attacked the Taj. At the time of planning, the government had insisted that a car park be a part of the makeover. But post 26/11, it has been sealed. The garden, which was opened for the public, has been barricaded.

Meanwhile, the kiosks continue to be empty, and the ticket as well as food counters are where they were. The BMC has not moved them as arrears for the present location have not been paid. Four years after the plaza was inaugurated , the BMC is yet to take a decision on these issues . INTACH members said they planned to approach the municipal commissioner to shift the ticket counters to the kiosks. Mehta said they were forced to create the kiosks at this location, "and now they are lying empty and all kinds of elements have taken them over. We were forced to create a car park, and now after 26/11, it is not being used."

Das said that one of the biggest gains of the redevelopment was that it opened up a large public open space and put an end to the "anarchy" there. "There were toilet blocks in a traffic island and another in the middle of the plaza ," he said. The redevelopment resulted in a proper parking lot and a garden but security threats sealed these off.

The plans executed were different from those he submitted , said Das. "Due to pressures from the state-empowered committee and otherwise , the plans were compromised . Poor implementation of public projects (there was a single bid) is a fact," said Das, adding that he was concerned about these issues.

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