Tug-of-war over move to shift Mumbai Zoo

Mumbai, July 18 (IANS) A tug-of-war is underway between political parties over the proposed shifting of the historic 153-year old Mumbai Zoo, popularly known as Rani Baug, in central Mumbai.

The latest to lend his weight to the argument against the shift is Mayor Sunil Prabhu, who has dashed off a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on the issue.

Set up in 1861, the Mumbai Zoo, later renamed "Veermata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan" stands on a prime 53-acre plot near Byculla station of the Central Railway.

The controversy has arisen following a proposal by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) to shift the zoo to the suburbs, either near the Aarey Milk Colony in Goregaon, or Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivli.

The MTDC has already appointed a private consultant for this purpose. The consultant has suggested that the zoo be shifted from its present site to either one of two probable sites in north Mumbai, which are considered appropriate for the development of a world-class zoo.

The suggestion is that the area where the zoo is located could be converted to a botanical garden. The MTDC has invited suggestions and objections this month from the people over the proposals, before a final decision is taken.

Opposing the MTDC plans, Prabhu has said that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has allocated Rs.3 billion for the modernization and upgradation of the zoo and the garden, which also houses a museum and a historic clock tower.

"So far, we have already spent Rs.1.50 billion on various aspects of the project. There have been delays in getting various permissions from the Central Zoo Authority and the state government, but some of the works were initiated since last year," Prabhu said.

The zoo is already a major tourist attraction with over 20,000 domestic and foreign tourists visiting it daily. The crowds swell even further during weekends and vacations.

All the major political parties, including the Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party are opposed to the shifting of the zoo, arguing that it is now an institution of historical significance.

Doubts are also raised about the need for a botanical garden in such a prime area in south Mumbai, which is well-connected for tourists. Areas in north Mumbai may not enjoy as much popularity with tourists.

So far, the state government has not made its stance in the matter clear.

There is a possibility that like the controversy over the Mahalaxmi Race Course, this too could snowball into a major issue.

The 99-year lease for the eight-lakh sq m plot of land on which the race course stands expired this year, and there were proposals to have a "theme park" in the area. Those proposals kicked up a major controversy. The matter was settled with a revision in the terms of the lease.

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