Mumbai: Controversial Decision by Royal Western India Turf Club Threatens Mahalaxmi Racecourse - City's Last Open Space

Mumbai: Controversial Decision by Royal Western India Turf Club Threatens Mahalaxmi Racecourse - City's Last Open Space

Out of 708 members, 540 supported the resolution authorising the managing committee of the club to enter into an agreement with the BMC for extending the lease of the land of the racecourse at Mahalaxmi on certain terms and conditions.

S BalakrishnanUpdated: Wednesday, January 31, 2024, 09:20 AM IST
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Mahalaxmi Racecourse | File

On Tuesday, 540 Mumbaikars made a decision that is likely to pave the way for depriving the 13 million citizens of their last open space. An extraordinary general body meeting of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) was held on Tuesday, during which only 708 out of the 1,800 eligible members cast their votes.

Out of these 708 members, 540 supported the resolution authorising the managing committee of the club to enter into an agreement with the BMC for extending the lease of the land of the racecourse at Mahalaxmi on certain terms and conditions. However, 168 members opposed the resolution.

According to discussions already held between Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Municipal Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal with the managing committee, out of the total area of 211 acres, 120 acres will be utilised for a "theme park," and the remaining area of 91 acres will remain with the racecourse. In return, the RWITC will have its lease, which expired in 2013, renewed up to May 31, 2053.

The catch is that no one knows what exactly this so-called "theme park" entails. The authorities have been very niggardly in parting with information on this score, causing lakhs of citizens to be extremely suspicious of the authorities' intentions.

It is well-known that some big builders are eyeing the prime land, which can yield profits running into a few thousand crore rupees. A pall of gloom has spread among citizens who want the open space to be left alone. Many feel that the authorities held a gun to the head of the managing committee by threatening not to renew the lease.

The sprawling land has been in the exclusive possession of the RWITC since the racecourse was built on marshy land in 1883. Former RWITC chairman Vivek Jain said, "Since the club’s open area is genuinely the city’s green lung, it must not be disturbed. Racing is a well-regulated sport, and the RWITC is a significant contributor to the state’s exchequer. There needs to be a solution that matches both the state and the turf club’s views and is easily achievable.”

Zoru Bathena, a noted green activist, said Tuesday's decision was unfortunate. He mentioned that many of the members are big businessmen who are vulnerable to pressure from the government. The fear was that if the club did not fall in line, the government might shift the racecourse to the Mulund dumping ground, as proposed earlier.

However, the club's own track record is causing worry among activists. In 2002, the club entered into a deal with Shobit Rajan-promoted Pegasus Infrastructure, under which the company was to get 100 acres to build an international convention center, golf course, new stables, and two clubhouse buildings.

The deal raised concerns, leading the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) to initiate a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court. After several hearings, the HC granted a stay on any new construction activity at the racecourse.

The committee members believe that in signing the MOU with BMC and the state government, the club has everything to gain, said RWITC chairman Surendra Sanas. The proposal was recently challenged before the high court. The BMC hired legal eagles like Mukul Rohatgi.

However, the move became infructuous with the state government informing the court that it has not taken a final decision and that the petition was premature. The court accepted the government's contention and disposed of the matter.

However, Mr. Bathena told the FPJ that he would move the HC if and when the government or the BMC takes any decision to build structures on the land or underground. "The entire land should be kept open," he asserted.

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