Mumbai: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Maharashtra government is unlikely to take a decision on extending the lease of the Mahalaxmi race course to the Royal Western Turf Club of India (RWITC) in a hurry, even as its alliance partner Shiv Sena is keen to develop a theme park on the land and name it after its founder Bal Thackeray.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis will likely follow the footsteps of his Congress predecessor Prithviraj Chavan who sat on file for more than a year.
The iconic race course is spread across 225 acres and is the only significant green patch in central Mumbai’s concrete jungle. It is the second oldest race course in Asia after the Kolkata race course. However, RWITC’s lease ended in May 2013. It has since then applied for renewal but the state government which is part owner of the land on which Mahalaxmi race course stands has yet to take any decision.
The Shiv Sena, which controls Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is also part owner of the land and has already passed the resolution asking state government not to extend the lease. While MCGM owns a third of the land, rest is owned by the state government.
Though the Sena claims it wants to develop a theme park which will be open to all Mumbaikars, the move has been linked to the party’s attempt to build a grand memorial for Thackeray. The Sena has not denied this.
Sunil Prabhu, former Mumbai mayor and Sena legislator, during whose tenure MCGM’s general body passed a resolution demanding not to extend RWITC’s lease said, “I have given a notice for debate in the house on this issue, but speaker has not yet officially scheduled the debate. I hope to hear from speaker’s office very soon."
Manisha Mhaiskar, principal secretary in urban development ministry of the state government said, “Since MCGM is part owner of the land, we have sought explanation from MCGM on certain issues and also demanded land records in this regard and a decision on the issue of lease will be taken by the government only after government receives answers to its queries."
Another senior state government official who did not want to be named said, “The state government is in no hurry to take any decision on the issue as it is a political hot potato. The state government will face the heat, whichever way it takes the decision. So, no decision is likely before MCGM elections which are due in January 2017."
In 2013, soon after the Sena first proposed the idea of an amusement park and a memorial, Debi Goenka, executive trustee of non-profit organization Conservation Action Trust that lobbies for environment protection said: “As far as we are concerned, this open space acts as the city’s lung and there should be no construction in the name of theme park and no convention centre, joy rides, hotels and such other construction should be allowed at the site."
The club pays around ₹ 50 crore to state government per annum in licence fees and taxes on betting and provides livelihood to nearly 5,000 people.
Vivek Jain, member of RWITC’s management committee said, “We have yet to hear from state government on the issue of extension of the lease. However, we are confident we will resolve all issues regarding the lease amicably and the club will continue to operate from its present location."
Prakash Akolkar, political editor of Marathi newspaper Sakal said, “Though Sena and BJP are alliance partners, they are at loggerheads over almost every issue and Sena doesn’t waste a single opportunity to snub BJP. So, it is logical for BJP to sit on the file and deny Sena the opportunity to either take credit for giving Mumbaikars a theme park or give it an issue ahead of the MCGM polls (if the lease is extended)."