- The Mahalaxmi Race Course stands on 225 sea-facing acres donated to the city by Sir Cusrow N. Wadia in 1883
- It’s now on perpetual lease to the Royal Western India Turf Club. In 1935, King George V granted the club permission to use the ‘Royal’ in its title.
- The course is home to the 5 Indian Classics, among them the Indian Derby
- In 1949, Kheem Singh became the first Indian jockey to win the Indian Derby
- In 1971, lyricist Rajendra Krishan won an all-time record jackpot—Rs 48 lakh
Every year, the first Sunday of February sees excitement visiting Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course. It’s not about just the horses and the races. The rich, the famous and the fashion-conscious are anxious about who’s sporting the best suit, betting the best bet, wearing the best—or even funniest—hat. Bollywood makes its presence felt, loudly sometimes, sometimes subtly. The not-so-rich-and-famous are there too, looking, or trying to look, dishy, placing the odd bet, forever craning their necks to take in all the electricity, all the fashion splashing and sprawling about. It has been so for more than a hundred years. But what if it were wiped off Mumbai’s calendar for a theme park?
Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief, seems to think that wouldn’t be bad. The race course is 225 acres, open, airy, mostly green, right at the sea-facing edge of the bustling city, surrounded by iconic spots such as the Mahalaxmi temple, Haji Ali and Malabar Hill. It’s the largesse of Sir Cusrowji Wadia, who donated the land to the city in 1883; it has been on perpetual lease from the civic body to the Royal Western India Turf Club. The lease expired on May 31. And Thackeray does not want it renewed: armed with blueprints and a digital visualisation, he wants a theme park there, open to the public. “There are no places in Mumbai people can go to,” he says. “We have an opportunity to build a world-class theme park and should use it to transform Mumbai into a world-class city.” Part of the land is governed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is under the Shiv Sena; part of it by the state government, now run by the Congress-ncp alliance, with which rests the final decision.
“It’s land-grabbing by another name. And yes, it’s political. Every real estate deal in Mumbai is just that—political.”
Shobha De, Writer, socialite
The Congress has wasted no time in criticising Thackeray, who is now scaling up his meet-the-people operation with an eye on the 2014 elections. “Talking about an international theme park is like planning a naming ceremony when the wedding is yet to happen,” says Sachin Sawant, a Congress spokesman. “The emotional appeals are merely politicising the issue and playing with the sentiments of the people.” Some critics even allege this is a Sena ploy to raise a memorial to its founder, Balasaheb Thackeray; they draw on the Sena’s use of Shivaji Park, a public ground, for the senior Thackeray’s cremation and the Sena’s not having identified a spot for a memorial to its founder. Thackeray, however, has often said the Sena isn’t interested in raising a memorial or naming the park after Balasaheb. He’d even met chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to insist there would be no politics in this matter. But that was then.
Last month, mayor Sunil Prabhu of the Sena-ruled BMC gave the nod to converting the race course into a theme park without allowing a debate. Congress corporator Sheetal Mhatre, who protested the move, was attacked by Sena corporators. Both sides have filed police complaints. The government has maintained a cautious silence, though the issue was touched upon in the monsoon assembly session. Civic activists say some 90 such plots await lease renewal, leading to much revenue loss, so why the focus only on the race course? And why, they ask, is it being made out that this could be the only recreation option?
Besides, the Sena doesn’t touch upon the fact that, apart from the fancy derby, the race course is indeed open to the public: there’s a jogging track, open to everyone, there are restaurants like Gallops, known for its old-world charm, the lawns are rented for weddings, for which the turf club pays BMC a separate tax. “The area is open to the public and many people use it daily for walking or running. Occasionally, farmers’ markets are organised there. Then there are the restaurants and weddings,” says Nayana Kathpalia of Citispace, an NGO that has been lobbying for open spaces in the city. But does a theme park not provide better access to people? No, say critics. Constructing a theme park would mean altering the open spaces and breaking them into small pockets. Besides, fancy theme parks would charge for entry.
“We have an opportunity to build a world-class theme park and should use it to turn Mumbai into a world-class city.”
Uddhav Thackeray, Shiv Sena chief
Others point out the plot’s links to the city’s history. “Firstly, the plot was donated by the Wadias for creating a world-class race course, modelled on the one in Melbourne,” says Bhaskar Sawant of the Maidan Bachao Samiti. “Had it not been a dedicated race course, would it have survived the development and construction around it?” The skyscrapers around the race course answer that.
Author and socialite Shobha De suspects worse designs. “It’s land grab by another name. And yes, it is political,” she says. “Every real estate deal in Mumbai is just that—political. And here we are talking about prime property. It is worth crores. Nobody gives a damn about either culture or heritage. It’s only about stripping Mumbai’s priceless real estate and making a fast buck.” Every other great city in the world, she says, reserves valuable space for parks, lakes and other environment-friendly spaces; we need those lungs more than we need statues. For, nostalgia apart, the race course provides much-needed breathing space to one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Experts are divided on whether any alteration or construction can be done on the plot, considering it is Grade II heritage area. But activists acknowledge the land could do with improved maintenance and better awareness about its access to people. “We agree that the parks that exist on the plot can be made better, but we are not sure if alterations can be made, considering it is a heritage structure. We haven’t yet decided on how to go about the development of the place,” says Milind Sawant, deputy municipal commissioner. He says other problems, such as restaurants flouting lease norms, can be handled on case-by-case basis to ensure revenues are good. “But,” he says, “it will hardly run into crores, for the turf club doesn’t generate that sort of revenue. But nothing (whether to end the lease or not) has been decided. It will take time.”
So the red tape may come as a silver lining to the stable hands, the people who go jogging or walking at the course, and those who wait for that crisp February morning to nurse a drink at Gallops and then parade their Ascot aspirations, their hats, coiffures and accoutrements, the tout ensemble.