We are touched by the average Mumbaikar's support: Dhunjibhoy
Khushroo N Dhunjibhoy, chairman of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), does not appear perturbed in the least by the fact that the Maharashtra government has not given its decision on the club's request to renew the lease of the racecourse land which, technically, expired yesterday. In an exclusive interview with Prakash Gosavi, the RWITC boss explains his reasons, and also makes a strong argument as to why he is optimistic about the future. Excerpts from the interview
There has been no decision on the lease. Authorities state they will still take some time to decide. Has that been communicated to you?
**Meanwhile, in the absence of any decision on the lease, would the RWITC continue running the racecourse as before?
No, we haven't officially heard from the authorities yet, but I understand from the media it is so. And frankly, I am not surprised. You see, it has always been like that. Even in the past the renewals took considerable time and the RWITC continued with the running of the race course. We intend following suit this time as well, and in any case, the next racing season at Mahalaxmi starts in November, so no one is in a hurry.
In fact, I was amused when it was said the so-called deadline was "expiring at the stroke of midnight on May 31". That's not the the way it happens. But of course, I don't blame the media. The atmosphere is supercharged because this issue is dear to every Mumbaikar's heart who wants to preserve the racecourse as a green lung for the city, and strongly feels that the race club has done a splendid job to keep it that way for almost a century now. No wonder, despite the political noise and postures, it is not difficult to sense where the sympathy of the Mumbaikar lies, and I am sure the government will take a note of it as and when it applies its mind.
Q. Why do you think the average Mumbaikar, though he/she is not exactly your customer (racegoer), always opposes any move to take the racecourse away from your club?
Good question. Even we are touched by the sentiment expressed by some of them, especially in television interviews and letters to the editor column. I am no sociologist, but I think they think it would be prudent not to disturb the racecourse at Mahalakshmi as its present location, because they don't see the race club as a threat. In fact, they feel the race club will ensure the continued existence of this large open space which virtually serves as a green lung for the city. Or maybe they feel the removal of this land from race club, which has looked after this property so well for so long, could only give rise to pressures for utilisaztion of the land for other purposes and might lead to its occupation by unauthorised parties. I mean maybe they just feel the only sure way of preserving this green property at Mahalakshmi is to keep it as it is. I and my committee really feel overwhelmed by this sentiment of the majority of Mumbaikars, not to mention the mainline media houses.
Q. What has been your communication with civic authorities in the run-up to lease renewal? Have you held meetings with them or with officials with reference to the matter?
The Club had written a letter to the authorities requesting to extend the present lease of the Mumbai Race Course for a further period of thirty years with effect from 1st June 2013, but no meetings have been held so far with them.
Q. Despite all protests to the contrary, the racecourse is still seen as an elite space, have there been attempts to change that perception?
Horse racing, as a sport, carries this erroneous perception that it's an elitist affair, and I believe that has something to do with the patronage it received earlier from the Kings & Maharajas--and later from rich industrialists. But you can go to any racecourse and you will find that more than 90% of racing's followers are common folks who are neither members of any club nor horse owners. Not everyone may be aware of it, but let me point out that this sport actually survives because of the so-called common man who loves horses, and supports it with his betting money. In fact, horse racing is a unique sport in the sense that it is the only sport that is entirely subsidized by its followers' money. All the stakes and prizes we give away are made possible thanks to the support this sport receives form the common folks who love to bet on this only official form of gambling allowed in our country.
Q. But isn't it true that only the elite enjoy the facilities at the racecourse?
Nothing can be further from the truth. Racing is held at Mahalaxmi for only about 40-45 days in a year, and on the remaining 320 days the central ground within the race tracks is kept open for use by the general public. In fact, it is kept open even when the horses exercise on the track and you can see hundreds of people from the public using it for walking/jogging/exercising.
The Club has laid special walking/jogging tracks with proper surface and lighting. Even toilets have been provided for walkers and joggers. During monsoon, temporary weather sheds are also provided for walkers and joggers to take shelter in case of heavy rains. Both during mornings and evenings, you can see children play cricket & football in the central ground.
We also ask various schools to organize visits to our stables so that children can interact with horses, see how they are trained, bathed, fed and exercised in the swimming pool. Besides this, the club has also encouraged citizens to conduct yoga and pranic healing camps and a football training facility at the racecourse. During non-racing months, especially on weekends and public holidays, a number of aero modelling shows are conducted on our premises in which hundreds of school children participate and thousands other watch and learn.
Add to this the 15 days of racing that we conduct in a year only to donate all its proceeds to charities, the Farmers' market we have started to ensure that organic farmers connect the health conscious among Mumbaikars and sell their produce, and the support we offer to NGO's, and you will agree why it is patently false to say the facilities at the racecourse are only meant for the elite.
Q. How much does racing contribute to Govt?
RWITC Ltd pays approximately Rs. 45 crore per year to the State Government, including BMC. But if only the government changes its stance and becomes a pro-active partner, this figure could go up dramatically. Like someone said in one of articles recently, horse racing, if handled properly, can rival an industrial project in terms of profitability, generation of employment and taxes to the govt treasury.
Do you think more crowds will come in if the betting tax is reduced?
Is there any doubt? Just compare the Bangalore and Mumbai scenario. Mumbai is the commercial capital of India, so one would expect betting turnover in Mumbai to be multiple times that of Bangalore, right? But look at the actual figures. Our yearly Tote turnover is only Rs 125 crore, and Bangalore, with less racing days, collects a whopping Rs 1,300 crore through its Tote. This shocking disparity is only because of the level of betting tax.
The Karnataka state government is extremely pro racing, they charge only 8% betting tax which, compared to our 20% level, attracts huge betting on their tote, while most of our legitimate share of betting--experts estimate over 90% of the volume--is perhaps driven into the illegal channel. All we need to to is offer a competitive rate of tax to win back that betting money.
You must have heard even a small state like Hong Kong, whose racing, in size and scope, is comparable to our own racing, generates bets of HK$ 80 billion, thanks to similar low tax level. We have been trying for long to impress on our govt the benefits of a low betting tax regime, both for the state government's coffers as well as for the horse racing industry, and we are hopeful the govt will see the point sooner than later.
In fact, we even don't mind giving guarantee of a minimum fixed amount of income from racing if the government allows us to devise a sensible tax structure for our sport. After all, we are engaged in a business of offering the only permissible form of legal betting in India, so why should we shy away from putting our own money where our mouth is? After all, we strongly believe low betting tax would revive this sport and also benefit govt treasury with huge collections.
Q. Have you been told to reserve one part of the racecourse as a recreation park?
No. (smiles) But after all that I have just explained, don't you agree the racecourse is already one huge recreation park?
Q. Has the RWITC been told to construct a Bal Thackeray memorial within the racecourse as the buzz goes?
No, we have not been told to construct a Bal Thackeray Memorial within the race course.
Q. If the lease is renewed, for how long, specifically, would it be renewed?
We have requested for renewal of lease for at least 30 years. But let me tell you, if the government seriously applies its mind to our proposal of betting tax reduction, there is a good chance this sport will generate so much money for their coffers that with a fraction of that money, the government will be able to create scores of green parks across the length of this city. If you think I am exaggerating, look at the alleged cricket betting figures we have been recently hearing about, and it is not unreasonable to expect a part of it coming to the legal channel of horse race betting if the betting tax issue sorted out.
England has 59 racecourses, Australia has two major circuits featuring virtually hundreds of racetracks, while the USA has at the moment close to 90 racecourses which come alive to the thunder of hooves every week.
In every country on every continent, every racecourse, big or small, is viewed as an iconic part of the city; and generally, there is historical importance attached to it which is a matter of pride for the local populace.
Interestingly, most famous cities have more than once racecourse adorning their landscape. Singapore has two racecourses, Paris has five and New York has two. Hong Kong has two racecourses--Happy Valley & Sha Tin--and, as mentioned elsewhere in this article, commands huge betting turnover. No wonder, the Chinese government was wise enough not to disturb the racing landscape of Hong Kong after taking over from England. Looks like even the communist regime cannot ignore the massive profits accruing to it thanks to Hong Kong racing.
In India, there are nine functional racecourses: one major racecourse in each city, viz Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai & Bangalore, besides smaller racecourses at Mysore, Pune, Ooty & New Delhi. There is also a dysfunctional racetrack at Lucknow which receives attention periodically when there is talk of its revival. The Punjab state government last week finalized a draft bill which will be soon converted into a law, making it the newest state to open its doors to racing.