On the face of it, the Shiv Sena might show that its plan to replace the iconic racecourse with a park is in larger public good. But chief minister Prithviraj Chavan is not too convinced.
Chavan’s reluctance to accept Sena’s plan comes from president Uddhav Thackeray’s claim that an opportunity for citizens to reclaim the racecourse plot has come after 99 years. This assertion is far from real.
There has been more than one occasion in the past — for instance, when the Sena ruled the state government from 1995 till 1999 for 5 years, or as the ruling party in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for over two decades — when they could have initiated this change, but this demand never came from them.
According to records from the civic estates department, which looks after BMC leases, there were four lease agreements signed from 1914 to 2013 for 30, 30, 20 and 19 years respectively.
The previous lease expired on May 31, 1994, and was renewed. In 2004, a new lease agreement was signed with the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) to maintain the racecourse for 19 years. This latest lease expired on May 31, 2013. “We had four new lease agreements signed from 1914, which were renewed in four intervals. There was no one 99-year lease,” said RWITC president Khushroo Dhunjibhoy.
That the Sena didn’t try to reclaim the land despite being in power and four lease renewals has led to the conclusion that the party, which presented its vision of the park to Chavan on Sunday, intends to build a memorial for late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray inside the public park — a motive it will likely reveal only once the demand to not renew the RWITC lease is met with. Municipal commissioner Sitaram Kunte will be sending a complete dossier on the lease renewal of the Mahalaxmi Race Course to the government, the final decision on which lies with Chavan.
“Thackeray needs to introspect before raising such a demand and making plans on paper. The CM reserves the right to take a decision in this regard. The Sena should stop politicising the issue,” said Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant.
He also questioned the Sena’s intentions, and said that the party had so far failed to save the changing landscape of the city, and develop existing open spaces.