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This city belongs first to the Navy

mumbai Updated: Jan 16, 2018 23:45 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Navy,Nitin Gadkari

The very purpose of the navy was to guard India’s maritime borders and it is not surprising that naval officers have turned down the Union government’s proposal to set up a seven-star hotel and other entertainment infrastructure in the sea.(FILE)

When Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari lams naval officers for seeking housing in South Bombay, he perhaps forgets that the island city of Bombay would never have been but for the navy — first the British Navy, then the Indian naval forces.

No city in the country owes its very existence as much to the British as Bombay. It is common knowledge now that the British inherited seven ragtag islands from the Portuguese as dowry for Prince Charles II in 1662 and at first were clueless what to make of them. Soon, however, they set out to join the islands to make it a composite whole and Bombay first came into existence as a garrison town and a strategic naval base. Much later it replaced Surat as a commercial port city (which is why the Bombay Port Trust too has huge tracts of land) and, the textile mills turned it into a manufacturing hub of India. The textile mills and commercial ports were deliberately created and settled by the British to serve their own textile interests in Manchester and what Manchester could not handle, Bombay did. The cotton cloth produced in the city mostly went to make uniforms for the British and Indian armies.

That is why Bombay has a distinctively migrant character where both the rich and the poor have been migrants — the textile mill owners from neighbouring Gujarat, its workers from the hinterland of Maharashtra and army and navy officers and sailors from all across India.

The very purpose of the navy was to guard India’s maritime borders and it is not surprising that naval officers have turned down the Union government’s proposal to set up a seven-star hotel and other entertainment infrastructure in the sea. This is not the first time they have been intransigent — proposals to set up many high rise buildings across the city, even as far as the northern suburbs, have been routinely denied permission by the navy. They have only had India’s security concerns at heart and never cared which party was in power. Many years ago, Sharad Pawar as union defence minister and their direct boss suffered the same fate as Gadkari when he attempted to release the vast tracts of defence lands, including those belonging to the army, for commercial development. The service chiefs had then complained to the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao who had decisively told Pawar to stand down and there was not a thing such a powerful leader, who was virtually the uncrowned king of Maharashtra at the time, could do to overrule the service chiefs.

Gadkari could then have fared no better but his indiscretion — and characteristic plain talk and political incorrectness — has not endeared him to many and not just the naval officers. The British Navy first took shape as a marine battalion of the Bombay Pioneers housed in Marine Lines (from where the place gets its name) which, however, got burned down twice, once before the first war of Independence and then soon after. A furious governor general, not sure if this was an accident or sabotage, in true kingly style had them banished to the forests, with all wild animals including tigers and leopards roaming free. This forest was known as Colaba Woods and one could not approach the mainland from there except at low tide. The naval officers cut a causeway through it and once the woods became inhabitable, churches (Afghan and RC Church) were built by the British and ramshackle barracks replaced by real housing.

Centuries later the Adarsh housing society has come up at that confluence — a society said to be originally for Kargil widows but which now has a plethora of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen owning flats in that building. While the jury is still out on whether this was a land grab by politicians from army and navy officers or if it was a government allotment to Kargil widows, I do not think army and navy officers can be denied the right to settle in South Bombay.

Not very long ago, amid much controversy, superstar Hema Malini was allotted a prime plot in Bandra at throwaway prices for little better than setting up a commercial dance academy. She was not asked to entertain soldiers at the borders as Sunil Dutt and others had done through several wars and even later at their own cost and no quid pro quos on offer. Is the claim of naval officers lesser than hers?

First Published: Jan 16, 2018 23:45 IST