Mumbai: Army restaurant was renovated minus RTI approvals

Updated: Feb 08, 2019, 17:39 IST | Dalreen Ramos

RTI reply to architect after mid-day report proves heritage committee had no clue

Mumbai: Army restaurant was renovated minus RTI approvals
Sabalan, which now stands in place of Army Restaurant in the Esplanade Mansion

The controversy around repairs done in the Esplanade Mansion's iconic Army Restaurant grows murkier. The family behind it, that renovated it to turn it into a new Iranian eatery named Sabalan, had previously told mid-day that they had requisite permissions for the renovation, which conservationists were worried could endanger the UNESCO-recognised heritage site. However, an RTI response has now revealed that no such permissions were sought from the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) for the Grade II heritage structure.

The Esplanade Mansion is currently India's oldest cast iron building, and experts say that even tenantable repairs are a heavy cost to pay. File Pic
The Esplanade Mansion is currently India's oldest cast iron building, and experts say that even tenantable repairs are a heavy cost to pay. File Pic

On December 6, 2018, mid-day had reported in 'It's like partying on the Titanic deck,' about the renovation of the Army Restaurant, which was revamped into Sabalan: The Taste of Persia. After the report was published, conservation architect Apoorva Iyengar of the Federation of Residents Trusts (FORT) Foundation, filed an RTI query regarding the repairs, and requested for proof of approvals from MHCC.

The decision to file the RTI was collectively taken by Iyengar with the UDRI, Oval Trust, NPCCA and the Kala Ghoda Association, among others. The response, delivered post the 30-day deadline, revealed that no permissions had been sought nor were any such proposals received.

MHCC will inspect
To follow-up on MHCC's reply, Iyengar visited their office last week. She said, "I spoke to the officials and they weren't aware of the mid-day report or the renovation. So, I showed them the images of the interiors that were published and they seemed shocked... In any case it is a Grade II heritage building and they should have gotten permission, especially since the restaurant is situated on the ground floor."

A senior MHCC official who had looked at the report admitted that it was incorrect of Sabalan's owners and the Mansion's landlord to not approach MHCC. "But along with the RTI, a complaint should have also been filed, so we could have taken action. Now that we informally know of the problem, we will go and inspect the area," he said. In response to MHCC, Iyengar said that filing a complaint will be the next step.

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Former MHCC chairman, V Ranganathan concurs, "MHCC is not a missionary. They don't have the mechanism to go all around the city and check buildings. That responsibility lies with the ward officers. But if a party approaches MHCC for permission, the body will see to it that work is done in compliance with conservation norms."

DK Jagdale, chief officer of MHADA's repair and reconstruction board, blames the planning authorities [BMC] for the mix-up. "This is an internal issue and doesn't fall under our domain. The court has appointed a committee to look after this building and we can only intervene when they decide to repair or demolish it," he maintained.

Esplanade owner says
Meanwhile, the mansion's landlord Sadiq Ali, who frequently visits the restaurant, asserts that there wasn't any need to seek permission from MHCC in the first place. "They have only undertaken colouring and marble work, which was done with BMC's permission. If unauthorised repairs were carried out, I would have filed a case against the owners myself. And even if experts insist that such repairs have taken place, I am ready to personally go have a look," said Ali.

A Grade II heritage structure implies that a building or precinct carries special architectural or aesthetic merit. The Esplanade Mansion is currently India's oldest cast iron building, and experts say that even tenantable repairs are a heavy cost to pay. "The permission process is so bureaucratic that people prefer not to opt for it. The Mansion is not the only heritage structure to have been tampered with. So, where do you stop the buck? We need more transparency," said a senior architect.

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