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Open spaces, but not for you

mumbai Updated: Aug 01, 2010 01:43 IST
Sayli Udas Mankikar

Their lease agreements expired years ago, yet 18 gymkhanas continue to occupy public land. Continue to pay a mere Rs 2.5 per sq ft per annum. And continue to deny Mumbaiites access to the public spaces hidden behind their forbidding gates.

A new gymkhana policy has been ready for two years.

But two weeks after Revenue Minister Narayan Rane was grilled on the status of this policy in the legislature, there is still no action.

The new policy promises to raise lease rates, monitor use of public land and guarantee public access to the gymkhanas’ open spaces.

“The policy was drafted two years ago,” admits M Ramesh Kumar, additional chief secretary (Revenue).

Fixing lease rates based on the location, land area and number of members of the gymkhana, the new policy would mean more revenue for the government and more access for non-members.

But there has been no Government Resolution bringing the policy into effect. No notices to gymkhanas. No revised lease rates. “The government resolution (GR) is expected to be in place by mid-August,” revenue department sources said.

Meanwhile, the 18 gymkhanas on public land continue to make lakhs in revenue every month — from their restaurants and bars, from membership fees that range from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 3 lakh per year and from the sub-letting of their public open spaces for weddings, parties and events.

Rane, in a statement to the Legislative Council on July 19, said the gymkhana land was “given for developing activities to do with sports, exercise and other ancillary activities”.

“But the reality is that most gymkhanas have become money-spinners,” said Anandini Thakoor, chairperson of the H-West Citizens’ Trust and herself a member of a number of gymkhanas. “Open spaces are not accessible to non-members and are often given out for weddings and events. It’s time the government took this land back and gave it to agencies that it can monitor.”

Meanwhile, the circle of blame continues. In his reply in the Council on July 19, Rane said the high court had stayed any taking back of land till a new policy was in place. He offered no explanation for why this had not happened yet.

The new rulebook, however, does offer hope. In addition to the new norms and more stringent rules, the policy also proposes to classify the gymkhanas into categories based on how large they are, how many members they have and where they are situated.

Thus a large gym in a prime area, with a large membership base, would have to pay an even higher lease amount.

Currently, the Parsi Gymkhana occupies over 14,000 sq m in south Mumbai and pays just Rs 897 per annum. Catholic Gymkhana in Bandra pays Rs 19 per annum for 151.50 sq m.

“All these gymkhanas need to cough up more money but also need to understand that they are on public land and they need to abide by the rules that govern such land,” said Vidya Vaidya, a member of NGO CitiSpace. “The government, meanwhile, needs to make sure there is some machinery in place to monitor these norms.”

The gymkhanas, meanwhile, had responded by moving court challenging a 2003 order to increase lease rates.

“They had asked us to pay Rs 15 lakh, which was not possible,” said Kamal Marfatia, president of the Hindu Gymkhana. The gymkhana has 5,000 members and a long waiting list, and charges an annual membership fee of Rs 1.5 lakh.