Vested interests jockey for control of iconic racecourse

Written by Shubhra Tandon | Mumbai | Updated: May 18 2013, 09:08am hrs
The Derby, the 1000 Guineas, the 2000 Guineas, the Oaks all these A-list horse races may soon be relegated to Mumbais history books. As the row over the renewal of the land lease held by Mahalaxmi Racecourse grows, Mumbaikars have been left wondering what will become of the 225-acre open space that has stood in the centre of the city for more than 100 years, hosting iconic racing events among others and has become part of the citys history.

The racecourse is part of the history of Bombay and to eradicate it will mean doing away with a part of the citys legacy, said Nisha Jamvwal, a well-known name in the citys social circles, who has often attended high-society events held at the racecourse. An interior and fashion designer, Jamvwal says if the racecourse goes, it will be a poignant moment for Bombay. Apart from being part of the racing events, Jamvwal is among those who flock to the racecourse for their morning walk and enjoy the rare spread of greenery in the city.

Can you imagine such a large, green, open space that has stood for 100 years not being there and giving way to giant wheels and other structures of a theme park As a citizen of Mumbai, I cant, Khushroo N Dhunjibhoy, chairman, Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), said wryly. RWITC runs the racecourse.

In 2010, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) issued a notice to RWITC accusing it of sub-letting part of the land without permission. Interestingly, the corporation recently renewed the licence for RWITC to serve food and drinks at eateries on its premises.

All allegations of violations of FSI (floor space index) and sub-leasing of property are being said loosely. The structures in question have been there for 25 years, why is it now that their legality is being questioned asked the chairman.

The club, which has a turnover of R85 crore annually, pays around R45 crore to the state exchequer in the form of the rentals, taxes on betting, etc, said Dhunjibhoy. The club, with about 10,000 members, gets around R5 crore in sponsorships for the races from various corporate houses and individuals every year. The Vijay Mallya-owned UB Group is a major sponsor, and others include the global hospitality chains Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai, real estate and infrastructure conglomerate Shapoorji Pallonji & Co, diversified conglomerate Wadia Group and the Poonawalla Group, apart from individuals like Madhur Bajaj of the Bajaj Group.

Built in 1883 on land donated by Sir Cusrow N Wadia, the Mahalaxmi Racecourse has recently been mired in controversy over its lease renewal as well, which expires in a fortnight. Of the racecourses 8.54 lakh square metres of land, BMC owns 2.54 lakh sq m, while the rest is scheduled land and belongs to the state government.

The controversy arose two weeks ago, after Shiv Sena corporator and city mayor Sunil Prabhu wrote a letter to BMC commissioner Sitaram Kunte, asking that the lease for the racecourse not be renewed.

He suggested to the civic authority that instead an international-style theme park be constructed there. On Wednesday, corporators across party lines also sided with mayors proposal.

However, the decision to renew the lease rests with the administration controlled by the municipal commissioner, who is expected to take a decision on the same later this week. Later on, the proposal will be sent to the state government for approval.