Mahalaxmi racecourse: Can we keep the prime open land out of reach for common people, again?
People are losing interest in horse racing. In fact, the Royal Western India Turf Club is earning more money by leasing out the place rather than from racing. Do we really need this elite-reserved extravaganza when there are no open spaces left in the city for common people?
The Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), whose 99-year lease for the 226-acre racecourse in Mumbai is coming to an end on 31st May, is again in the news. While several people including Mumbai's mayor want the land to be converted into a public space or garden for ordinary citizens, some people feel that in case the lease is renewed then the RWITC should be asked to pay rent as per the current market prices in that area.
Moneylife also has pointed out
how this seemingly elite and glamorous sport, with dwindling spectator interest, is occupying prime land in Mumbai just because it had turned into a cosy fiefdom for its rich and powerful patrons. Should ordinary Mumbaikars be satisfied with the tiny access granted to them by the RWITC for jogging, walking and yoga sessions? Or should we ensure that Mumbai’s green lung with all its restaurants be turned into a public space that is freely accessible to everybody like New York’s Central Park or even Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, we had questioned.
This time even Mumbai’s mayor Sunil Prabhu does not want to renew the lease agreement and instead wants to create a public garden at the racecourse land. He had sent a letter to BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) commissioner Sitaram Kunte asking the municipal corporation not to renew the lease for this prime and sea-facing land in the heart of Mumbai. In the letter, Prabhu had pointed out that for about a century, the BMC land has been out of bounds for common citizens and is used only by the elite class.
Three year ago, the RWITC locked horns with the BMC. Threatening to terminate the lease agreement, the BMC had sent a notice to the Turf Club accusing it of sub-letting part of the land to third parties without permission.
The BMC has already served two notices on the RWITC for several constructions, pertaining mainly to the restaurants, which are in breach of its lease agreement. It also ran into serious trouble with the fire department with two successive incidents of fire gutting the stands in July and September 2008. In one instance, the 100-year old colonial structure that houses the members’ stands caught fire in 2008 and it was discovered that it wasn’t adequately prepared with fire-fighting equipment.
RWITC, which manages horseracing in India, is controlled by an elite bunch of super-rich businessmen and thus continues to occupy the sprawling 226-acre racecourse in the very heart of south Mumbai.
Looking at the publicity and glamour at the Mahalaxmi Race Course during the horseracing season, one would assume that the RWITC must have been earning huge moolah from this. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The rich man’s RWITC is showing more revenues that are generated from leasing out lawns for fancy society weddings and restaurants and from royalty earned from the catering business.
In fact, since the renewal of its last lease, the number of restaurants at the racecourse has increased to six. Even the number of weddings and other functions taking place at the racecourse lawns has grown phenomenally over the years. At present, the Mahalaxmi Race Course houses restaurants like Tote on the Turf, Olive Bar & Kitchen and Gallops.
The 10-year lease of Gallops, one of the oldest restaurants, with large banquet/ party spaces, has also been renewed (again controversially) to BJN group of restaurants. This had also earned the displeasure of the municipal corporation, since the lease of the racecourse land itself expires in 2013 and it has no right to enter into a longer-term sub-contract.
According to a report from the Times of India, RWITC chairman Khusroo Dhunjibhoy had said there would be no trouble (for the Club) in securing the lease agreement (again). “We have been managing this racecourse for over 100 years and have maintained this open space which is being utilised by general public as well. There were some small breaches but that have been taken care of. We also give around Rs50 crore each year in the form of taxes to the government. We have had positive talks with the officials in the past and see no reason as to why the lease will not be extended,” the report said quoting Dhunjibhoy.
In case RWITC is successful in renewing the lease, then is must be asked to pay rent as per the current market price feels some activist.
“It is necessary that a proper assessment of the market rent be made, before fixing the lease rent. The BMC should advertise its intention to lease the property, along with all the conditions it wishes to impose, and ask various parties to bid the amount of lease rent they are willing to offer. Only after such an exercise, would it be appropriate to fix the lease rent,” said an activist who does want to be named.
The activist also quoted the judgement delivered by the Supreme Court in 2G spectrum case. “In conclusion, we hold that the state is the legal owner of the natural resources as a trustee of the people and although it is empowered to distribute the same, the process of distribution must be guided by the constitutional principles including the doctrine of equality and larger public good,” the apex court had said.
“The poorest man who may be starving is an equal and rightful owner of this land, and it is necessary that the appropriate revenue is obtained for him,” the activist concluded.