The eight political parties asked to vacate their South Mumbai offices to make way for the Metro 3 project had it good for a very long time. They paid throwaway rents of Rs 5 to Rs 8.52 per square foot for their offices at Nariman Point and Azad Maidan. You would have to cough up anywhere between Rs 150 and Rs 200 per square feet to rent an office in these addresses that command some of Asia’s highest rates.
While most of these parties, which include the Congress, the Shiv Sena, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have expressed willingness to shift, they are visibly unhappy and are making requests for alternative accommodation close to Mantralaya. This is one issue on which the political rivals are united.
Records with the public works department, in charge of collecting rents, show that 15 prime plots admeasuring 22,550 square feet in all, roughly half an acre, have been rented out to 17 political parties from the 1970s. The plots are allotted to the parties on the basis of a government policy under which such allotments are made to social organizations or other establishments that are in public service.
If the current commercial rates are applied, which average Rs 175 per square foot in this area, the state, which is facing a financial crunch, can earn Rs 39.46 lakh a month or Rs 4.7 crore annually. Instead, at a rate of Rs 8.52 per square foot, that is increased by 5% annually, it earns Rs 1,92,126 monthly or Rs 23 lakh annually -- almost Rs 4.5 crore less. The rents were fixed at Rs 5 per square foot a month from the 1980s till 2003, when they were revised after a rap from the High Court.
Also, in 2014 it was seen that most parties had not paid up their rents. The rent due stood at Rs 28.53 lakh till March 2014. PWD department officials say most of the dues have been paid.
But political parties counter the argument that they should pay commercial rates saying they don’t earn profits and are into ‘public service’.
“We will always cooperate for public projects. However, we are paying concessional rates because political parties are meant for public service and not for profit-making. It is not right to compare us to commercial establishments,” said Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant. Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant too said it was unfair to say that political parties should pay commercial rates. “We are providing a service to people and not earning from the office. One should not politicise this issue,” Sawant said.
“The metro project was mooted by our government and we will cooperate with the government for this. They have promised to provide an alternative space, for which we will wait,” said NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik. The NCP had recently renovated its office into a swanky space and its leader Ajit Pawar visited MMRDA to understand why the office needed to be vacated.
But citizens are not too thrilled about parties claiming that they should not be charged more. “Laws apply equally to all citizens. If a plot of land or space is given by the government to a common citizen for a ‘service’ where he doesn’t earn profits, then will the same rates apply. If an exception is being made for political parties, it should be made for all,” said Atul Kumar, vice president, Nariman Point Churchgate Citizens Association (NPCCA).
The NPCCA has filed a PIL to reclaim the Nehru Garden at Nariman Point, a part of which has been occupied by the BJP and the Janata Dal.
For now, the government seems to be scouting for locations to move the eight party offices, and it remains anyone’s guess if the BJP-Sena government which has its own fingers in the pie will want to take a step that will hit the two parties too.