Battle on course

May 10, 2013, 05:48 IST | Sujit Mahamulkar and Hemal Ashar

The impending expiry of the lease for Mahalaxmi Racecourse has spawned a debate centering on the 'clique versus common man' premise. While mayor Sunil Prabhu advocates making the space available to the public at large, RWITC chairman Khushroo Dhunjibhoy, who is rooting for lease renewal, claims that is already the case. In conversation with MiD DAY, they justify their posture

Throw it open to the public, says mayor Sunil Prabhu
There is no need for a racecourse to be within city limits. But a public park or garden definitely needs to be in the city.

 The plot can be protected (from new construction) by placing reservations on it for a garden or a recreational ground.  So that even in future no construction is allowed on it and it remains an open space.  Though the plot is an open space today, it is not accessible to the common people.

The main purpose this (not extending the lease and turning the racecourse into a garden) would serve is that all this space would be thrown open fully to people, and not just for a certain class of citizens. We can develop a garden along the lines of Central Park in New York, which is also in the middle of the city and developed on a plot belonging to the local authority. This would also attract tourists. It can be the biggest park within city limits in our country.
- As told to Sujit Mahamulkar

Sunil Prabhu

Prabhu’s letter to CM
In a letter to the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Prabhu has stated, ‘The plot had been given on lease for the purpose of horse racing. Now if the lease is expiring, the BMC and the state government should not extend it further. The plot should be acquired in the public interest. ‘Considering the increase in Mumbai’s population in the past few years, the paucity of space and the rising pollution levels, the city and its children need the open space. The plot should be developed as a garden or a recreational ground.’

It is open to the public: RWITC chairman Khushroo Dhunjibhoy
As the deadline to renew the lease for Mahalaxmi Racecourse nears, I am optimistic that civic authorities and the state will look at the larger picture with reference to this space, rather than stick to narrow misconceptions about it being used only by the elite and being closed to the general public. As lessees, we maintain this ground with a lot of care and pride. It is, in fact, already a public garden and is not closed to the general public. This is absolutely false. In the mornings and evenings, this place is accessed by hundreds of walkers and joggers, who use it as a lung for exercise. Youngsters can be seen playing football in the inside part of the racecourse. 

Khushroo Dhunjibhoy

We are absolutely committed to maintaining this beautiful, verdant expanse as an open space for the city to enjoy. Not only do we take care of it, we are also paying Rs 50 crore annually in taxes. When I talk about upkeep, you only have to look at the recently refurbished jogging and walking track as an example. We have installed benches and bollard lights to make this space kinder on pounding feet and make exercising an even more pleasant experience. There are quite a few runners who use this to practise for the Mumbai marathon, which comes around January every year.

Remember that horseracing is held for 40 days of the year and at that time this space is closed, and that too only in the afternoon from 12 pm to 6 pm. After that it is thrown open so people have all-year access to the place. I want to say that race goers too are the general public. Take the ratio of owners/club members to the general public on race days. It is 1/3 (of the former) and 2/3 (of the latter).

We have also hosted a number of charity events for cancer, disadvantaged women and children at this place. So it is evident that we are firm about giving back to the city as much as we possibly can. There are other plans on the anvil of how we can make this even more beneficial to the Mumbaikar. 
In the end, I am quite positive that the Chief Minister and all concerned will take all this into account, and renew the lease for this iconic piece of green which we have maintained without encroachment for 100 long years.
- As told to Hemal Ashar

Racecourse or garden? mumbaikars react
The authorities must see the racecourse in mornings and evenings when the common public is out in full force, using it for exercise and recreation. I do not think it is closed to the public. There is complete access. Add to that the high level of maintenance and I think that’s strong enough reason for the lease to be renewed.
- Dr Ashish Contractor of Asian Heart Hospital

The fact that though I live close to Hanging Gardens but like to walk at the racecourse says something about this facility. I like the fact that it is maintained well. Also, there are toilets for the public to use. This is more than welcome in a public facility, and contrary to misconception, it is very accessible to all.
- Prakash Munshi, Malabar Hill resident

Those who say it is not open to the common man obviously do not know what they are talking about. They should see the boys playing cricket in that oval inside. Though I am an RWITC member, I use the space for walking and exercising. It is evident that all strata of people use this space. Rebew the lease
- Devika Patel, Peddar Road resident

It is definitely a good idea to develop a garden as this will become a good place to refresh ourselves as opposed to going to malls and spending our money. Racecourse is of no use to the common man who is least interested in horse racing, but a garden will be of great use in a city that is already devoid of green spaces.
- Amanpreet Sharma

Though I’ve personally never been to Mahalaxmi Racecourse, it is still one of the most well-known places in Mumbai. It’s unique and has remarkable history attached to it and I would definitely not like to see it go off the map. We have a lot of gardens across the city and there is no need to build another.
- Sumeet Pujari

On one side Mahalaxmi Race Course is a well-known Mumbai landmark. But at the same time it’s a purely elitist affair and the common man cannot afford the privileges it has to offer. It’s a huge area of land, which can be put to good use in a different way so that the people of Mumbai can enjoy the amenities the new garden has to offer.
- Aditya Kadam 

Don’t destroy our green symbol
In 2004, a developer called Shobhit Rajan of Pegasus Infrastructure, a private company, planned to develop a chunk of Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi racecourse. It was this paper which first exposed the Royal Western India Turf Club’s (RWITC) agreement with Pegasus Infrastructure. Riding on sentiment and environmental outrage the deal was cancelled and status quo was maintained at the green lung of South Mumbai.

Today, the clock is ticking again as the 100-year-old lease of this prime land is set to expire end of the month. Already, some have started exerting pressure not to renew the club’s lease. It would be a humongous loss to the city, if this racecourse is lost to S Mumbai.

Besides races, the venue also serves as an open-air garden for walkers and joggers. During the rains, one sees youngsters playing football in the oval inside. It is also host to the Amateur Riders Club (ARC), the venue to go to during polo season and a haven for aero-modelling enthusiasts. The course is maintained well by the RWITC and recently, the entire walking track was re-laid with bollard lights and other amenities. While authorities claim that the space would be converted into a public garden, it is being used as a garden even now.

A city needs its races too, never mind the elitist tag frequently used to dismiss it. The racecourse is a beautiful, lush, green symbol of Mumbai. Let us preserve it and maintain it. It would be a black day in the city if the racecourse were to slip away.

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