Mahalaxmi Race Course, Mumbai's lungs gasping for breath

It is a green ribbon where 'Rajas' and 'Fakirs' are born when hooves thunder. The oxygen oasis in the polluted concrete desert of south Mumbai called Mahalaxmi Race Course is once again battling for its survival with land predators euphemistically called developers hovering in the wings to gobble it.

The 226-acre racecourse owned by the influential Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) has a history pock-marked by controversies ranging from creating a 'water-world' to underground 'áquarium'due to its proximity to the Haji Ali Dargah sea-shore, to an underground metro car park to criss-crossing the skies above the concourse with fly-overs to a recent proposal- creation of a garden-cum-theme park on the much abused term 'international standards.'

The RWITC having a 99-year lease expiring May-end this year holds derbies during racing seasons and renting out the stadium and parts of racecourse for political events and high-profile weddings during off-season. As expected, last week the ruling Shiv Sena in municipal corporation sparked off a controversy not in January or in February but late April, recommending that Mumbai's iconic landmark should be converted into a public garden.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Mayor Sunil Prabhu shot off a letter to the commissioner Sitaram Kunte asking him to refrain from renewing the lease as it would be better to develop the place into an 'international standard' theme-based garden. Mayor Prabhu is not the first mayor eyeing the plot, even an earlier RWITC committee in 2004 itself had tried to get into an agreement with Pegasus Infrastructure for developing a nine-hole golf course, hotel,service apartments, club-house and exhibition-cum-convention centre on a large chunk of the plot.

An enraged Sonia Gandhi had ordered an inquiry into the controversial deal while a civil group under the banner of Public Concern for Governance Trust led by former Union Cabinet Secretary BG Deshmukh moved the Bombay High Court alleging that the project was just a cover to grab grab one of the largest open spaces

(The present day reported value is pegged at Rs 25,000 crore.)

Reviving an idea

The then incumbent RWITC management was thrown out; the new team cancelled the deal. Soon after this controversy in 2007, the then Mayor Shubha Raul revived an idea first proposed in 1994 to convert the racecourse into a parking spot.
This time the reason doled out was that creating a parking space would help vehicles in case if there is a repeat of July 26, 2005 floods which swamped the entire city but left the racecourse untouched.

Like in 1994, the suggestion of Mayor Raul went into waters and soon after another move was made to usurp the plot under the guise of a slum rehabilitation scheme.
Like in every land grabbing scheme script, a builder floated a drive to identify a so-called legal slum-dwellers living on the racecourse adjacent to a nearby railway station. It was found that the the inhabitants of the 'so-called slum dwellers' were families of RWITC employees and a petition was moved against the builder and municipal corporation. Interestingly, when municipal corporators fall silent, ministers in state government are ready with their outlandish plans of conversion.

In 2005, the then Maharashtra Environment Minister Ganesh Naik came up with an out-of world idea that the race course should not be inside a city; instead all such plots of land like Aarey Milk Colony, Film City Goregaon, Worli Dairy and Vikhroli Mangroves can be handed over to companies involved in construction of malls and buildings. The proposal by Naik had come just days before the July floods ravaged the city and Chitale committee appointed to look into the causes behind the drowning of the city cited the destruction of open spaces and mangroves as one of the major cause behind the flooding. But then it is not just the real estate agents who have their lens focussed on Mahalaxmi Race Course, even small private aviation companies want to develop the plot into a heli-pad.

The primary reason why controversies continue to hammer the race course lies in the dereservation policy introduced in mid-eighties; the policy made Mumbai open spaces an El Dorado of brown gold. The controversies following dereservation policy have been dogging every mangrove and green lungs of the city.

However, unlike other plots of open spaces where the ownership between the civic authorities and state government is clearly delineated, Mahalaxmi Race Course owned by RWITC by its very formation and legal position makes it a string that is caught in a tug-of-war.

Of the total 8.54 lakh sq metres of the land occupied by the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), 2.54 lakh square metres is owned by the BMC with the rest falling under the Urban Development Department (UDD.)

Thus no single authority has powers to clear a proposal with regard to Mahalaxmi Race Course. Interestingly, most chief ministers till now have shied away from giving away the race course for conversion plans primarily because in the political world there exists a belief that anybody who signs the shifting of race-course from its original place, faces an imminent fall into obscurity and from citadels of power.

It is precisely due to this that none of the chief ministers- barring mayors who know that their tenure rarely lasts more than one term- never sign on the dotted line clearing the shifting of a race-course.

While the present controversy may finally peter out like it has done innumerable times in the past, grapevine has it that fund managers from both Shiv Sena, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has also jumped into the fray, are tightening the tourniquet on RWITC keeping the 2014 polls in mind.

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