23 September 2020 09:53 PM

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MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 26 APRIL, 2020

Whose “Commons” and for Whose Good?

The Elite Clubs Of Delhi.


Control of the prestigious Delhi Gymkhana is now a bone of contention with the Government of India seeking to takeover its managing committee. Recently a petition was filed by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) in the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), seeking action under Sections 241 and 242 of the Companies Act, which allows a member of a company or the government to seek relief if the affairs of the entity are being run in a manner `prejudicial to public interest’ or is `oppressive’, among other things. The government had used the same provisions of the Companies Act to get the NCLT approval to supersede the board of IL&FS in October 2018.

Incredibly, the central government has cited `parivarvad’ or nepotism, financial irregularities, misuse of allocated land and issues related to membership, as the primary reasons for it to acquire the Club. While it is at it, it might as well take a look at the Delhi Golf Club, where nepotism is more rampant and where the real estate is far bigger and more valuable.

In 2014, Arvind Kejriwal, then making an entrance into national politics specifically referred to the Delhi Golf Club as a prime instance of corruption and cronyism that allowed a small number of people take possession of public property. But like the Delhi Gymkhana, the Delhi Golf Club comes under the jurisdiction of the central government.

Compared to the 27 acres of land occupied by the Delhi Gymkhana, the Delhi Golf Club is in possession of 220 acres of common land and enjoying it for the exclusive benefit of three thousand “members” of whom only 900 have the right to vote, and most of these are hereditary members.

Both these clubs are private clubs enjoying public land or land that could be deemed as “commons.” “Commons” refers to the cultural and natural resources that should be accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. The “common good” is a utilitarian ideal meaning "the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals". Many like the philosopher Michael Sandel believes that promoting the “common good” should be the main deal of a democracy.

Every major city in India has such clubs. Most of the better-known ones are relics of the Raj and were meant as a private place for the ruling elite to socialize and fraternize. Being the ruling elite they gave themselves tracts of public land for their private enjoyment. At a time when the whole country was for their private enjoyment this raised few questions. After the white man departed, these clubs became a preserve of the new Indian elite – many called them the brown sahibs.

But the Delhi Golf Club is a post-colonial institution. The land was bestowed to it by the generosity of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951, who was persuaded by the late Dharam Vira to “save 220 acres from being concretized.” The club functions on its now priceless acres of government land on the basis of a lease that the Government of India renews from time to time. But during UPA2 the then Urban Development minister, Kamal Nath, renewed the lease by 30 years, even though it was not due for extension, in exchange for 29 permanent memberships of his nominees to the club. This should give you some idea of the implicit value of the membership.

The public record shows that the club pays the government a princely annual rental of Rs.5.8 lakhs and that in turn allows its 3000 members the exclusive rights to the most centrally located open space in New Delhi. The Clubs website rightly rhapsodizes: “an oasis had been created in the heart of New Delhi where one may woo the game of golf, or simply feast his eyes on the fresh green vistas that confront him, or join the bird watchers in the sanctuary where over 300 different species are found.” And all this can be enjoyed by a certain few for a monthly membership of Rs.800.

Since the Delhi Golf Club’s website mentions that non-members can play, but they will be charged Rs.2400 for each time they play an eighteen hole round. And if you play more often you can get yourself a deal. You pay just Rs.18000 for ten rounds. This might be a deal, but not near as good the chosen and their progeny have given themselves.

To be sure there are many other golf clubs too in Delhi and the NCR. But the Army and Air Force golf clubs are for their own and on land belonging to the military. Unlike the Gymkhana and Golf Club, the Army and Air Force Golf Clubs do not allow hereditary memberships, though retired officers can retain their memberships.

The DLF golf course, supposedly the best in India, is on private land, as is the ITC Classic golf course. The membership at the ITC Classic Golf Club is Rs.1.25 lakhs a year and has a fifty-year tenure with no hereditary rights of passage. The DLF Golf Club’s individual membership for a five-year term is Rs. 8.5 lakhs. Paradoxically the DLF and ITC golf clubs are more egalitarian as birth is not a criterion but money is.

The idea that a now crowded and bustling city like Delhi should still have such a vast open space is a worthy one. New York’s Central Park occupies a full 778 acres and London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens complex measure 625 acres. But they are there for the enjoyment of all residents and visitors. They not only provide vital lung space to otherwise crowded cities, but also give the ordinary people a place for recreation and the enjoyment of nature. Unlike the Delhi Golf Club whose vital lung space is for the exclusive benefit of the chosen 3000.This privatization of the commons by a mostly hereditary and self perpetuating elite for their exclusive enjoyment and not for the common good has major ethical and moral dimensions. It should concern all of us.

Mohan Guruswamy is a member of the Secunderabad Club, India International Center and India Habitat Center; and doesn’t play golf.

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