Society

Mumbai’s Elite Gymkhanas and Clubs Under Pressure to Change

Unlike Delhi clubs, which are dominated by bureaucrats, Mumbai’s exclusive enclaves do not want babus in their midst.

Bombay Gymkhana. Credit: Raj Sarma/Facebook

Bombay Gymkhana. Credit: Raj Sarma/Facebook

Mumbai’s posh clubs and gymkhanas, long regarded as bastions of privilege and exclusivity, are now being forced to change their ways-and they are not liking it a bit. It is not as if they are being asked to become less exclusive – far from it – but a new type of member wants to join in.

On Tuesday, after much discreet pressure behind the scenes, the tony Bombay Gymkhana – established in 1875 – narrowly voted to decline offering permanent membership to senior bureaucrats. Serving babus are allowed to hold temporary membership during their tenure, but have to give it up when they get transfer or retire.

Unlike in Delhi, where most institutions – clubs included – are dominated by bureaucrats and keep out businessmen and professions, the Bombay clubs are populated by the latter. Film stars too find it difficult to gain membership – they congregate in Otters Club and while the babus have the Sachivalaya Club of their own, it is not as glamourous as the other gymkhanas.

While a hefty 67 percent of members were all for it, the vote fell short of the 75 percent required for passing the resolution. This after the Club’s president Darius Udwadia had made a plea for the need to create an “environment of engagement.”

His appeal is understandable, since the club sits on government land and reports indicate that its lease may have expired. Which means that it will require the approval of the government – i.e. senior bureaucrats – to renew it and many members have expressed worries that stringent conditions will be imposed. As it is the club has earlier been in conflict with the authorities for using the footpath outside for parking.

Bombay Gymkhana at least admits new members; many others have stopped taking in any one but children of current members. Despite many new buildings and gated communities offering clubs within the premises, sometimes with better facilities, the demand for the older clubs has not abated one bit. Waiting lists runs into years, and rarely open. But any attempt of the outside world to encroach is furiously resisted.

The posh Willingdon Club for example is currently facing a demand by the RTO to give up its golf course to be converted into a vehicle testing track. The members, which include some of the biggest names in the city, have outright refused to accede to this request. The sea-facing Breach Candy club – which is run by Europeans and has been in the news for infighting among its members – is facing allegations of violating coastal zone rules.

The Turf Club, which manages the sprawling race course in Mahalaxmi, has been fobbing off threats by political parties to use the land to build leisure centres etc. The club’s lease ran out in 2013. The Radio Club, near the Gateway of India, is in a tussle with its landlord the Bombay Port Trust which wants the land to construct a berthing terminal for ships.

A wizened member of several clubs says that periodically these issues crop up and then club officials have to do a lot of diplomacy with senior government officials. “I remember a senior police officer arm twisting one club to make him a member, but the club just held on till he retired,” he says. “Many clubs happily give membership to those in key positions in the government, but if we start admitting them on a permanent basis, the numbers will become unmanageable. Now word is that even politicians want to join” What troubles the members more is the fact that the bureaucrats may want permanent memberships at discounted prices; entry fees to the bigger clubs is in the region of Rs 80 lakhs to 1 crore and beyond, which not many babus will be able to cough up. Less openly said is the fear that the entry of politicians and bureaucrats will change the tone of the place. The Bombay Gymkhana vote has reportedly angered the senior bureaucracy, though the chief secretary Swadhin Kshatriya was quoted as saying that since it was an autonomous organisation, it was up to the members to decide.

The bigger question is, are the clubs ready to allow for an increase in rent for the prime land they sit on? No details are available, but the rents these clubs would be paying cannot be anywhere close to market prices–in one case, the rent was a paltry Rs 4200 a month. The government would be well within its rights to start asking for more money-failing. Eventually, despite all the grumbling in the bar, the clubs may have to make some adjustments with senior – and thus powerful – bureaucrats.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Mumbai ka babu…! They are very powerful… they can make or break a club. The gymkhanas and clubs must brace the situation… prepare for the rent hike.