Mumbai has 1,051 existing plots that can be developed as gardens, as per the information released by municipal joint commissioner SS Shinde. Yet the city’s mayor — backed by the ruling party in the BMC, the Shiv Sena — is bent on acquiring the Mahalaxmi Racecourse purportedly to build a garden, perhaps name it after Bal Thackeray. He is doing this for the common Mumbaikar, he claims.
Yesterday afternoon, immediately after group leaders in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation passed a resolution asking the state government not to extend the lease of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse and let the BMC develop a garden there, MiD DAY caught up with Mayor Sunil Prabhu, the author of the current controversy.
Are you out to prove that you are not a ‘rubberstamp’ mayor, with special reference to the letters you have written to the chief minister and the municipal corporation? Your predecessors were never seen writing so many letters.
I wouldn’t like to compare myself with anyone. But I would like to point out that the Constitution has given me, in my capacity as Mumbai’s mayor, the right to meet the CM, governor and ministers and that is what I am doing. I am trying to do things for the benefit of the citizens of Mumbai and I am doing what I am supposed to do sitting in the mayor’s chair.
Coming to the issue of racecourse, where did you get the idea of writing to the government and asking it not to extend the lease?
Regarding the racecourse, there’s a decision that has to be taken by the government, and being the mayor, I thought of writing to the government.
But why all of a sudden? For all these years, the BMC never wrote any letters asking not to extend the lease.
I have been in the BMC’s improvements committee for seven years and as per my experience, many decision are dependent on the state government. Hence, when I felt the need (of the lease) I wrote a letter to the chief minister.
Where did the idea of not extending the lease originate?
When there was a discussion over the lease of the racecourse, what hit me was, what are we giving Mumbaikars? We should give something to the common citizens, there’s a need for open space, something where they can go and sit. Also, we will benefit in terms of tourism if we have an international park. All this was in my heart, then I went and discussed it with my party chief Uddhav saheb (Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray) and he also agreed on this. Whenever I do anything for Mumbaikars, I do it from my heart, and for this, I am ready to face any criticism.
So you discussed the matter with Uddhav Thackeray before writing the letter?
Yes, I did, and not only regarding the racecourse. When I do anything for Mumbai and Mumbaikars, even before taking an ordinary decision, I ask Uddhavji, go meet him at Matoshree, I speak to Aadityaji. I even take the leader of the house into confidence and convince the commissioner. Only then do I take any decision.
You plan to make another garden at the racecourse, but there are already so many gardens in the city. Why target the racecourse?
Mumbai has gardens, but common Mumbaikars don’t have anywhere to go to on a holiday, where they can spend the whole day. In foreign countries, there are so many world-class gardens where people can go and spend time. I think, if we have a similar garden in Mumbai, the common man would go there. It would benefit the tourism sector and also the environment because new plants would be planted.
But the Mahalaxmi Racecourse has been synonymous with Mumbai for decades now. It’s been there since before independence.
Horses have been racing there. If the government still wants horseracing, then the CM should find a suitable place outside Mumbai for it. For Mumbaikars, the primary requirement is open space.
Of the nearly 245 acres of the racecourse, 30 per cent belongs to the BMC. Are you asking for only your land?
We are not asking for only BMC’s share. We want the entire racecourse land. We want the whole plot so an international garden can be created for Mumbaikars.
After you wrote the letter, another controversy has erupted. There’s talk of a plan to build a memorial to Bal Thackeray. Even Uddhav Thackeray has mentioned that the garden be named after the deceased Sena supremo.
Uddhavji has categorically mentioned that when we made the proposal to the government, there was no intention of naming the garden. But he has welcomed the request of the people asking to name the garden after Balasaheb. I wouldn’t like to comment more on what my party chief has already said. He said what we wanted to and to whom he wanted.
In that case, do you want a Bal Thackeray memorial in the garden similar to the one being planned for B R Ambedkar in Dadar?
Our proposal is only about a garden of international level, where the common Mumbaikar can go and spend some time.
What’s your definition of ‘international garden’?
The way international gardens exist across the world, with less of construction and more of plants and landscaping, a pond, somewhere people can go and spend quality time. That is our main intention.
You are sure there would be nothing except for the garden?
What happened to the memorial of Bal Thackeray at Dadar? The plan doesn’t seem to be working. Will there be a memorial for him in Mumbai?
The party and senior leaders will decide that. I think we need a memorial for Balasaheb, depicting all aspects of his life, from a cartoonist to a humble human being and a great politician. However, where to build it would be decided by the party chief Uddhavji.
There wouldn’t even be a statue in the garden?
I would like to clarify that when we thought about the garden, it was only with the idea of providing the city and its residents with open space, nothing else.
How much area do you think would be required for such a memorial?
The party chief and senior leaders will decide when and where to have the memorial.
Don’t you think your letter created unwanted controversy?
Whatever I do, I do it for the common Mumbaikar. The decision was taken in consultation with my party chief. The public knows that I am working for them.
What if the state government extends the lease?
Then BMC would take its part of land. I expect that the state government would take a decision that benefits the common Mumbaikar.