Given the official shroud of secrecy over old leases of large tracts of land in the island city of Mumbai, it is not surprising that citizens learnt only recently that the term of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) in Mahalaxmi is ending on May 31.
Club officials and members are scrambling to get the lease renewed, while public opinion is solidly against leaving this relic of the Raj (which still genuflects to British royalty) a private amenity for the elite, sprawling over 225 acres in the heart of the city.
Like many leases of land given over for recreation (as well as industrial purposes, notably the erstwhile cotton mills), the Turf Club's history is complicated. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Council (BMC) owns only a third of the area, while the state government owns the rest. The government is being noncommittal on what it proposes to do at the moment; many of the club's upper echelons wield considerable clout, which they are apparently bringing to bear on the Congress-NCP coalition.
The fact that the site provides the only helicopter pad for all of prosperous south Mumbai must also be a factor in favour of extending the lease. However, the BMC is run by the Shiv Sena-BJP and it has made no secret of its desire to convert part of this huge tract of land into a garden in memory of Bal Thackeray.
At a meeting at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) last week-end, RWITC members have argued that barring the racing months when access to one part of the grounds is excluded, entry to much of the area is open to the general public.
However this amounts to obfuscation because this is not public knowledge and the site is not easily accessible by public transport; there is an invisible barrier which separates the private from the public. To add insult to injury, the 2,400-metre race track occupies only 88 acres; horses are housed in a woody corner. An exact parallel is the Bombay Gymkhana, whose lawns in a maidan are also meant to be open to the public when they are not being used, but aren't.
The fact remains that if one divides the total open space in Greater Mumbai, the city proper, by its population, each Mumbaikar has only a little over 1 sq metre to himself. It has for years been pointed out that when the norm for open space in a city is 4 acres for every thousand residents, Mumbai has a miserable 0.03 acres.
London is the best off among mega cities with some 6 acres and New York - with its iconic Central Park - over 4 acres. Delhi also has around 4 acres. With the sordid stealth that the Maharashtra government displayed around 2001 in altering its earlier formula for mills to sell or redevelop land, the city lost around 200 acres of public space which was its due.
According to some reports, the RWITC has a total turnover of Rs 85 crore a year, of which Rs 45 crore is paid to the public kitty, including rent from restaurants on the site as well as from betting and other taxes. Of this, the BMC earns a pittance. The ground lease rent it received last year was Rs 56 lakh and this goes up by 10 percent a year.
Gallops restaurant pays a risible Rs 1.4 lakh a year; the Touchee [sic] bar Rs 94,788. Both, as the RWITC and BMC openly admit, have violated their lease conditions. The major revenue-earner for the BMC is the letting out of the grounds by the club for marriages, which brings in Rs 1.25 crore a year. However, the club either has to pay the BMC a third of the amount it earns "during the financial year towards extra ground rent" or Rs 25,000 per day, whichever is greater.
At the ORF meet, former Information Commissioner in Delhi, Shailesh Gandhi, who has exposed the niggardly rents that many large companies and others pay to the authorities, cited how such low rentals robbed the public exchequer of much-needed revenue. In fact, he pointed out that the very purpose of a long lease was a hedge against inflation. The RWITC leased expired in 1994, while everybody slept over it. It was backdated a decade later. "Land can't be given in perpetuity," he observed. He cited the farcical case of Simplex Mills in the city, the lease of which expired in 1983. It continues to pay the government the princely sum of Rs 48.31 paise per year.
Another state-owned property which is shortly to be gifted away is none other than Shahrukh Khan's famous residence, Mannatin Bandra. He recently announced that he was, as a law-abiding citizen, paying the government Rs 8.3 crore to buy the seaside plot. The market value of the land is around Rs 200 crore. Gandhi reckons that between the two Collectors under whom most of the city's land vests, Mumbai is foregoing as much as Rs 2,500 crore a year by way of lease rents. This, at a time, when no one can possibly fathom how Maharashtra will recover from its current debt, which has touched Rs 2.7 lakh crore.
Protagonists of the club maintain that there is a "trust deficit": no one trusts the government or municipal corporation to run such a large open space.
Just two days after the ORF meet, newspapers reported how political netas were reluctant to pay higher charges on the public grounds they maintain, in return for being permitted to erect club houses. No prizes for guessing that this is an ill-disguised form of political corruption.
Shiv Sena and BJP legislators are largely to blame: one club is even named after the Thackeray residence, Matoshree. Thus, there is certainly truth in this allegation. However, there are sufficient instances in the city where public-minded residents and citizens have formed trusts which maintain public grounds without in any way benefiting financially from this.
The Oval Maidan in Churchgate is a prime example; left to itself, the state government would have parceled out land to favourites, as they have to Dilip Vengsarkar to run a cricket training academy.
It was only due to public surveillance that he was prevented from constructing a building for this purpose. The Cross Maidan and Horniman Circle are other examples; indeed, some trustees are common to all three.
In Bandra, the two seaside promenades which are an iconic feature of this suburb are yet another reminder of how citizens can rise to the occasion, given the opportunity to do so.
The ORF is to hold an international design competition for making the racecourse a multipurpose park. As for concerns that the government may extend the lease when it expires this week, there are sufficient precedents - not excluding the race course itself - for carrying over the expired lease on the same terms till a decision is reached about it. A decision, compulsorily, where citizens should have the first say.