MumbaiNaama: Why Mahalaxmi Racecourse Matters To Mumbai

MumbaiNaama: Why Mahalaxmi Racecourse Matters To Mumbai

Large open spaces should not be sparse, a rarity, in a city as congested as Mumbai. Yet, they are few and far between

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, February 01, 2024, 09:48 PM IST
article-image
Mahalaxmi Racecourse | File

Say “Mumbai” and the usual descriptives start flowing — India’s economic and commercial capital, the entertainment hub of the nation, and so on. These are true yet somewhat cliched, and as all such truisms go, have become self-limiting. As the debate rages over commercial establishments and corporate headquarters forsaking the city for greener pastures in neighbouring states such as Gujarat, to stay aligned with the political times, there are aspects of Mumbai that fly below the radar. Mumbai is rarely described these days in terms of its ecology or intellectual capital. Both the ecological city and the intellectual city deserve more attention — and serious renewal.

The ecological profile of Mumbai is unique given the seashores and waterfronts on its western and eastern lengths, creeks and waterbodies which connect it to the hinterland in Navi Mumbai, Thane and beyond, its rivers and their networks which flow towards the sea, its hills which rose in the suburbs and forests that used to be lush green, its once-abundant mangroves and the unmissable saltpans and more. In the race to be the commercial magnet of the country, Mumbai’s earliest planners either ignored its ecology with barely a nod to it in planning documents or treated large parts of it as ‘developable’ land for construction at a later date.

Both the approaches harmed the city, as we now know and have evidence for. The list is long but suffice it to focus on a few headlined items — astonishingly low open space per person at approximately 1.2 square metres while the standard prescribed by the World Health Organisation is nearly 9 square metres, moderate to severe air pollution which threatened to surpass Delhi’s bad air quality in the last two years, repeated instances of flooding when the city receives heavy downpour in the monsoon given how impermeable the city’s surfaces are, the chipping away of the Aarey forest for one project or another that pares down the city’s green space and reduces its biodiversity, and more.

Large open spaces should not be sparse, a rarity, in a city as congested as Mumbai. Yet, they are few and far between. This is why the future of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse matters to Mumbai and Mumbaikars. At nearly 220 acres, it is land that belongs to the city, through its civic corporation, and therefore to the people of Mumbai. The latest proposal by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to develop a theme park with a London Eye-like structure — and supporting construction for it — with a sunken garden and a connector road linking it to the Coastal Road gardens must be debated fair and square. What happens to the racecourse impacts us all and will determine quality of life for many decades to come.

The BMC has thought it fit to speak with the Royal Western India Turf Club, which operates from here with horse racing and other riding facilities occupying about 90 acres of the public land, to take the theme park proposal ahead. The last of the lease for these activities expired back in 2013 and the snobbish Turf Club has operated on ad hoc renewals. Of course, the space (except areas with horse stables, stands, offices) is open to the public for a number of activities and thousands of Mumbaikars can be seen walking, jogging, playing matches, training for marathons and physical examination for employment in the police force, and so on. But why should a private club continue to occupy public land?

As a city facing sea-level rise and possible partial submergence in the future, as a city with the rising problem of polluted air, as a city which hungers for open spaces, it was for the BMC to speak to the people of Mumbai about its plans for the racecourse, be transparent about its proposals and invite people's ideas. Before that, the BMC should have begun relocating racing activities from the racecourse to another destination and claimed the entire 220 acres as public land — free, open and green space. Yet, the power structures are such that the BMC commissioner speaks to the Turf Club members to reassure them about continuing their activities but no transparency to Mumbaikars about the theme park proposal or moves for public consultations without limiting these to the well-off sections of the city.

If open space was seen as valuable for its own sake, for the city’s future, the civic body would do more than what it does today. Instead of an ecological perspective, the BMC chooses a dim, convenient and piecemeal view of the city’s ecology which only harms the city. Somewhat similar is the state of affairs with the intellectual institutions of Mumbai and its place in the nation as an intellectual powerhouse of ideas, ideologies, knowledge, scholarship, rational thought and debates, though there is no one agency to hold accountable. The intellectual capital that Bombay nurtured and fostered a century ago makes for fond conversations among historians and older people, but is rarely seen now.

Mumbai De-intellectualised was the title that the late Dr Aroon Tikekar gave to one of his many books. An astute and uncompromising editor, a scholar who penned the ‘biography’ of the University of Bombay, president of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai for three terms, and a public intellectual, the late Dr Tikekar bemoaned the fall of the city from its grace in the intellectual and scholarly world. This was where, he used to say, some of the most popular ideas took shape and were fiercely debated, where the freedom movement saw its landmark events, where a range of societies devoted to literature, geography, marine sciences and others flourished, where the popular media not only represented the present-day but were also platforms for debates, where culture and performing arts sowed their histories deep, and so on.

It is tempting and easy to infer that commerce and glamour dented it and pared it down to an inconsequential bit in the nation. While partly true, it does not entirely explain the downslide of the city in terms of intellectual worth, the shrinking of its many institutions of scholarship and repute, and the non-establishment of new institutions that contribute to the intellectual capital of the city. When commerce determines many aspects including availability of space, it places some limitations on what the available space will be used for — or not.

Mid-size to large auditoriums in schools in many neighbourhoods of Bombay/Mumbai fostered theatre and theatrical traditions that are now lauded. Think Chhabildas in Dadar which became iconic for the possibilities it offered to experimental Marathi theatre-persons. Modern-day schools either have no auditoriums or they are not leased out for experimental cultural work. Isn’t the city poorer for it? How many open maidans are left in neighbourhoods which once allowed local people to host a range of activities from Ganeshotsavs and Ramleela performances to annual sports days and folk music shows? When replaced with gardens and parks that are manicured spaces for walking and jogging, that too mostly of a particular class, the neighbourhood is intellectually-culturally poorer.

What does the University of Bombay, the second-oldest in India, stand for today; what path-breaking research has it brought to the public and intellectual leadership demonstrated in times of great socio-political upheaval that we are witness to? Where are the institutions that nurture debate and encourage questioning, even between people of opposing polarities, or institutions devoted to scholarship on subjects of modern-day concern? The problem of de-intellectualisation was identified by the likes of Dr Tikekar more than 15 years ago; little has been done about it since.

Without sustainable ecological health and robust intellectual capital, the flight of commerce means that Mumbai risks becoming a shadow of itself.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

RECENT STORIES

Bundelkhand: The Rising Hub Of Defence Manufacturing

Bundelkhand: The Rising Hub Of Defence Manufacturing

Editorial: Walkover For Trump?

Editorial: Walkover For Trump?

The Crisis Of Governance In Higher Education Is Becoming Worse

The Crisis Of Governance In Higher Education Is Becoming Worse

Editorial: Lessons From The By-Polls Verdict

Editorial: Lessons From The By-Polls Verdict

In Democracy, Opposition Is Multiplied; Let It Not Become Rahul Vs Modi Binary

In Democracy, Opposition Is Multiplied; Let It Not Become Rahul Vs Modi Binary