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Devendra Fadnavis’ welcome move against Mumbai’s exclusive clubs

Mumbai city news: The gymkhanas, clubs and grounds in Mumbai sit on government land.

mumbai Updated: Jun 14, 2017 21:04 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai city news,Devendra Fadnavis,Mumbai gymkhanas
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.(HT File)

There exists an enduring myth among many Mumbaikars, especially the middle and lower-middle classes, who believe that the well-heeled of the city own the large, exclusive and immaculately maintained gymkhanas, clubs and grounds just as they own their stately mansions and multi-storey residential homes. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The gymkhanas, clubs and grounds where Mumbai’s rich and famous rub shoulders over carefully curated events and delectable cuisine, play squash and swim, host parties and business meetings, where membership is either closed or costs the equivalent of a 1BHK flat in a distant suburb, sit on government land – or public land.

The plots on some of the city’s most valuable real estate were leased to the clubs and gymkhanas during the British regime. They continued to pay ridiculously low lease rents, many encroached on adjacent plots or pavements for private use, others rented out their splendid properties for private events raking in lakhs of rupees.

In many cases, the 99-year or long leases signed in the British era lapsed 10-15 years ago but governments did not press the issue. The leases of nearly two-thirds of the 19 or 20 clubs and gymkhanas on government land have expired, as per official data. That some of Mumbai’s illustrious names from law and judiciary to industrialists, sports and glamour world were at the helm of affairs of these clubs and gymkhanas must have been intimidating for governments that otherwise rush to demolish legal slums.

This La Dolce Vita is set to change after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis got cabinet approval for a landmark policy this week. The new policy seeks to regularise lease rents in keeping with Ready Reckoner rates, limit commercial use of the premises to 45 days a year, mandate that 25% of the revenue from such use is shared with the government, appoint the collector as ex-officio member in managing committees of clubs and gymkhanas, and reserves 5% membership for government officials. The last two are bound to be controversial given how zealously the clubs and gymkhanas maintain their exclusivity and resist official interventions.

The last time that the state government had formulated a policy and hiked leased rents was 14 years ago; clubs and gymkhanas had promptly challenged it in the Bombay high court. The policy was stayed, then the stay was lifted. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pointed out several lapses, including expired leases in its 2013 report. But the issue was put on the back burner.

Former chief information commissioner and indefatigable RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi had computed in detail how the unlawful and unethical occupation of land by the clubs and gymkhanas meant that the city’s rich and famous were denying the public exchequer of its rightful dues which amounted to thousands of crores. What could be more urgent than securing public land for public use or its true value, Gandhi had asked.

The Fadnavis government’s decision may also be challenged in the court. But, at least, the attempt to get the wealthy to pay their rightful share for occupying public land has been renewed. Even if the policy is not legally challenged, implementing it is unlikely to be a smooth affair. Remember the recent run-ins that Bombay Gymkhana has had with government and civic authorities over land use, encroachments and giving up land for public use?

The clubs and gymkhanas, some dating back to the 19th century, were allotted public land to encourage sports and community activities. The early purpose metamorphosed into exclusive mutual fraternising among the city’s rich and famous in the post-Independence era; more lately, steep membership costs kept out average Mumbaikars even as the clubs and gymkhanas became affluent and exclusive islands.

This flies in the face of all arguments to democratise space in the city. There will be much hand-wringing and tch-tching about “government interference” by their members, but it would help to remember that they occupy public land – and must pay a fair price for its use. Isn’t this their favourite argument against the poor who occupy public land?

First Published: Jun 14, 2017 18:39 IST