Mumbai: The 140-year-old Bombay Gymkhana asserted its elite and exclusive character earlier this month. It voted after much debate not to admit senior government officers as members.
But then how come this class, so keen to preserve its privilege , has for years so openly intruded upon public space just outside its premises for almost 20 years ?. . The members have regularly parked their cars on the public footpath and insisted this is their right. They are livid with anger when told by the municipal corporation not to park there. For long the footpath was enclosed by the gymkhana making it look like a private space. I have felt uncomfortable walking in this space with security men watching over as if you are an intruder.
One of the most vocal members of the club on the issue of discrimination against women in the institution taught sociology in the St Xavier’s college a little distance away. Perhaps she could as well focus on larger, pertinent issues and educate the members about some basics. This is the birth centenary year of Jane Jacobs, the eminent thinker of urban issues, who campaigned into her nineties for a more democratic use of urban space. She called for mixed neighbourhoods, creating of more public spaces, walkable spaces where people of different classes could mingle and she opposed the dominance of the motor car.
Jacobs should be an inspiring figure for our feminist movement. She was not a trained architect or urban planner but through sheer dedication and study she acquired her status. Unfortunately, she remains little known even in our academia or among architecs. So one should not blame the gymkhana alone.
It is said that governor Lord Willingdon started the Willingdon club in Bombay because Bombay Gymkhana refused entry to an Indian prince into its premises. Unfortunately, the Indian elite inherited British snobbery but not liberalism and democratic values.
In some ways India is nearly 150 years behind England in terms of democracy. There were mass protests in England in 1866 when the authorities locked Hyde Park for a day to prevent thousands of people assembling there to demand the right to vote. People broke the barricades.
John Stuart Mill, the noted exponent of liberty, strongly criticized in Parliament the locking of the most public of spaces.
But in Mumbai the gate of Azad Maidan on the side of the headquarters of the municipal corporation is literally under lock and key for several years now to prevent protesters or pedestrians. And this is just a little distance away from Bombay Gymkhana. Unfortunately, neither the elites like the ones at the Gymkhana nor the bureaucracy nor politicians in Mumbai seem to care enough about access to public spaces even when they are so desperate to protect their turf. In fact, some people are actively robbing citizens of public spaces.
Nothing can beat the take over of the municipal Vallabhbhai stadium by the neighbouring National Sports Club of India at Worli and converting it into an elite site of consumption for the rich. Lot of public memories are associated with the stadium. There cannot be a more blatant example of the privatization of public space. Many remember the wrestling bouts of Dara Singh there and recently noted photographer Mukesh Parpiani of NCPA recalled his photographing legendary boxer Muhammad Ali during an exhibition bout at the stadium. I remember the cycling velodrome there. Incidentally, there was also the industrial unit Hind Bicycles some distance away which shows that cycling had an important place in Mumbai. We are now witnessing a counter revolution in many ways and these changes in the neighbourhood of Nehru Centre occurred during the Congress regime . This shows that the process of reversing the Nehru legacy began much before the more deplorable drive of the BJP.
Ironically, NSCI was started by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad but is now controlled by the new rich. Bombay Gymkhana and others of its kind represent the old rich. The SVP stadium was taken over ostensibly for providing better sports amenities but it is now a venue mostly for outrageously expensive weddings and entertainment events. These cause massive traffic jams on one of the widest roads in the city.
A little further away is a massive public, municipally owned space but privately controlled by the Royal Western India Turb Club. Many still think the race course is privately owned. It is not. The race course is a complete anomaly in a city starved of public space. Most of the elite clubs in Mumbai and other cities are on land leased by the government at extremely low rent.
The Central Information Commissioner declared in 2013 that the Delhi Golf Gymkhana’s market land price was nearly Rs 47,000 crore but it was paying only Rs 582,000 per year as rent per year. ( less than the rent for a single, modest flat in Delhi or Mumbai). Since, the land was owned by the government, the club should be accountable to the public. The bank account of the club was sealed some time ago for not paying property tax.
Some of the wealthiest in the city get highly subsidized food and other facilities in some of these clubs at the expense of the common people. The clubs earn huge profits by giving government owned space on rent for lavish weddings and other functions. One wonders if a part of this revenue goes into government treasury as it is supposed to.
Some of the club members behave as if the clubs are doing a favour to the city by holding on to the land at subsidized rates. Mr K.N. Dhunjibhoy, , the then president of the turf club in Mumbai, said in a chat with Indian Express journalists in 2013 that the club was spending Rs 2 crore a year on maintenance of the ground. Where would the municipal corporation get that money from for maintenance? he asked. A strange question considering that the BMC’s budget is always huge, for this year it is of nearly Rs 37,000 crore.
Clearly, there is a strong case for making the clubs accountable to the public, especially since they are occupying public land at a ridiculously low price when many members are obscenely rich. We have an extremely arrogant rich class. Some years ago the Mumbai textile mill owners refused to allow access to mill lands to a high level government committee headed by the reputed architect Charles Correa. Clearly, the rich have no respect for democracy, no understanding of democratic values.
(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority).