Nitin Gadkari’s Burj Khalifa dream worries many Mumbai tenants

Mumbai, June 22: The eastern waterfront of Mumbai does not make it to the tourist brochures or any popular representations of the city. Skirting the coast, the 15 km or so stretch is mainly populated by abandoned godowns, warehouses, small businesses, low-rise housing and slums. It is used by the trucks that enter and exit the city carrying goods. Beyond a secure boundary lies the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), at one time the leading port in the country but now overtaken by more modern facilities.

But where the visitor might see an industrial wasteland, Nitin Gadkari sees a glittering future city. In the area now being called Portlands – a nod to the Docklands in London which was transformed from a decrepit area into an ultra luxury neighbourhood – Gadkari sees marinas, helipads, leisure centres, malls, promenades, luxury sea-facing apartments. His vision also includes a London Eye-like attraction and a building taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

“Burj Khalifa? Smart Cities? By all means build those, but why at the cost of our livelihood and our lives,” asks Pervez Cooper, who, till a year or so ago, worked out of an office in the area. In May 2015, Cooper and 60 other tenants of Nazir building, where they had been based for decades, were thrown out of their offices by their landlord, the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT). The Port Trust took this action because the lease on the building had long run out. While this is factually correct, the tenants say that they became casualties in a fight between the MbPT and the original lessee who has since passed away.

Nazir Building was leased out to Jimmy Nazir in the 1930s for 50 years. Sometime in 1986, the lessee “sold” the lease to a third party. The Port Trust did not recognise the transfer; instead, it sued both of them. The tenants were left in a lurch; on court orders, they began depositing the rent with the court and the new lessee kept on collecting it, says Cooper. But she did not hand it over to the Trust. This went on for three decades, till one day last year the MbPT decided to take possession of the building; Cooper says the tenants got an hour’s notice and with the help of a police posse, all of their belongings were moved on to the road. Decades worth of businesses were simply wiped out.

This may sound like a straightforward legal issue, but it is not. All along the Portlands stretch, there are tens of thousands of tenants who are in a limbo because of conflicts over expired leases between heirs of original lessees and a newly aggressive MbPT. There are buildings in which the residents – mainly old tenants – are not paying any rent, since they don’t know who to pay to. Not surprisingly, the Port Trust – which collects a bare Rs 150 crore rent annually – is locked into a large number of legal cases.

The Trust’s website lists nearly 800 lease holders and 2005 ‘tenants’, but the total number of residents in these properties runs into lakhs. Rooms as small as 200 square feet to tiny garages to large apartments and huge offices, warehouses and even iconic buildings like the Taj Mahal Hotel – they all are “owned” by the Port Trust, but leased out. Many of the original lessees have either ‘sold’ the leases, died or are still sitting on the properties despite theie leases having ended. Some tenants claim that influential lessees managed to keep getting extensions of 15 months at a time. “This couldn’t have happened without some greasing of palms,” says a tenant who did not want to be named.