Banished from the Grounds
Marriages dominate events at the Palace Grounds. The ban on commercial activities has driven away popular events.
The city’s bibliophiles cried foul as the state government stoutly refused permission beyond three days for the annual Bangalore Book Festival at the Palace Grounds recently. There is no way the 10-day fair can be shortened and still be kept sustainable, rued the festival organisers and cancelled the decade-old event. But as the dust settles on this latest controversy, the focus shifts back yet again on the continuing ban on all commercial activities in the Palace Grounds, the centrality of the place and yes, its contentious legal history.†
The ban had come into force on August 3, 2012. The State Legislative Council had announced that besides weddings, birthdays, social get-togethers and political conferences (not rallies), Palace Grounds will have no place for any commercial activities. The city’s music buffs shook their heads in disbelief as the clampdown clearly ruled out any more rock concerts at the famed venue. The concerts shifted to faraway grounds on the city’s outskirts. Also banished were the flea-markets that were just beginning to carve out a niche space among the city’s small entrepreneurs.
The recent death of Srikantadutta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, the scion of the Mysore royal family, might have injected a sense of immediacy to the whole property’s fate in the public minds. But legal issues related to the property’s ownership dates back to 1996. That was the year the government made its first move to take possession of the property and develop it into a lung space. The government notification eventually got the approval of the Karnataka High Court, but the matter was soon taken to the Supreme Court by the royal family. The case is still pending there.
Last year’s ban was intended to arrest the unbridled commercial exploitation of the 480-acre property. The larger objective was to ensure that the apex court’s guidelines for the property’s use only for state, political and religious activities were strictly adhered to. But this has largely remained unaccomplished. Reason: Barring exhibitions and rock concerts, other activities with a distinct commercial tinge have been allowed to operate. Lavish marriages are allowed, but the fee levied on paper is a pittance, severely undercutting the tax revenue flows to the government.
The bitterness is clearly evident in the voice of Govindaraju, who runs the Raja Tent House in the premises. “Commercial exhibitions, fairs and other activities were good revenue earners for the government. The bills were 100 per cent in white money. The flow of luxury tax and sales tax revenues to the State was good. Small business enterpreneurs and the general public really benefited. But these marriages benefit neither the government nor the public,” he explains.†
Besides, the marriage hall bills that showed only Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh as daily rentals were clearly not convincing for him. He wonders how the government and the Department of Personal and Administrative Reforms (DPAR) in particular could believe such documents. The Department is empowered to control sanctions for events held inside the Grounds.
However, the State could have no excuse in turning a blind eye. For, the probes ordered in the past had revealed that private players were making money without the government’s knowledge. An inquiry report filed by the Deputy Commissioner this year had disclosed that there were 52 permanent structures built against the norms inside the Palace Grounds. Many of these structures were passed off as temporary but were clearly permanent in nature.†
In all, the Grounds had 59 venues with more than 30 events organised daily. Following the ban, this number was restricted to six. This meant each of the property owners, all legal heirs of the Mysore Maharajah, including the now deceased Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, Indrakshi Devi, Gayathri Devi, Vishalakshi Devi, Kamakshi Devi and Meenakshi Devi could organise one function and raise revenue from it. A single-window panel headed by the DPAR principal secretary had to process the applications before granting permission for the events.†
Following the report on the unauthorised permanent structures, the Supreme Court had ruled that no function should be permitted inside them. However, sources point out that this rule has been violated often. “The weddings are rarely inside temporary pandals. The permanent structures are being openly used,” says an insider.†
Traffic congestion on the busy Bellary Road triggered by events in the Grounds was once talked about as a big excuse for the ban. In fact, the then city traffic police topbrass had even sought a total ban on all activities, including marriages in May 2012. But today, there is still no relief from the huge number of cars that line up for the weddings of the super rich inside the grand halls within the property.
Yet, there is a thinking that the activities could have been allowed and the traffic managed if a plan proposed by the traffic police themselves was implemented in right earnest. The idea was to allow only entry of vehicles through the gates on the Bellary road side to various events. The exit gates were to be only on the Jayamahal road side. All the small roads within the Palace Grounds premises had to be linked through a new common road. However, this plan never took off although the BBMP had acquired 36 acres to widen the Jayamahal road. The widening project too is now in perennial limbo.
Forced to shut shop and hunt for alternate, less attractive venues, organisers of the book fair and other events wonder why the DPAR allowed two purely commercial entertainment setups to function inside the Grounds near the TV Tower. †A senior DPAR official explains that one of these setups, Fun City, was there even before the Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling to maintain status quo on the existing structures.†
Nevertheless, many banished event organisers are now convinced that the permissions are granted selectively. A nine-day Navarathri event was allowed since the organisers had applied for permission under three different names! The event was hardly non-commercial.†
Some organisers even suspect a larger agenda to drive them to the exhibition centres on the city’s outskirts such as the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre (BIEC) on Tumkur Road and the Karnataka Trade Promotion Organisation (KTPO) in Whitefield. “People have to travel very far to reach these places. It might be okay for B2B shows but not B2C consumer shows. Only the well-to-do can afford to go there,” points out Ravi G., an event organiser. †
Missing the concerts and fairs
Royals not at ease†