The Bangalore Turf Club (BTC), which occupies around 65 acres of prime land worth hundreds of crores of rupees donated by the Maharajas of Mysore in the 1920s, has not only fallen into the hands of a cabal of self-serving people but the sentinels of Government, who are supposed to guard public interests in the affairs of the BTC, unfortunately, appear to be hand-in-glove with these very people.
Having been part of the horse-racing fraternity and the sport in Bengaluru and elsewhere for over three decades as a ‘Journalist-Ombudsman,` I`m making these observations, with a lot of pain and responsibility.
Let me explain my deep sense of anguish:
The visionary Maharajas of Mysore promoted horse racing as a sport, and they denoted (on a long lease) 65 acres of land to the BTC, which was one of the pioneering institutions in the country. BTC was entrusted with the task of holding free and fair horse racing for the benefit of the general public and also maintaining the Race Course as a lung place in the heart of the City.
The successive elected governments of Karnataka have tried to keep an eagle-eye on the activities of BTC with its own nominees on its management, keeping the larger state interests in mind.
The purpose of having Government nominees on the BTC management was to protect the interests of the race-goers and ensure that the Government was not deprived of its rightful income. Many senior IAS officers, who have worked closely with the BTC over the years, have done their job conscientiously, but of late, the vigilance seems to be missing.
Currently, there are two ex-officio Stewards namely the Principal Secretary, Finance, and the Bangalore City Police Commissioner. The former is incidentally also the licensing authority. There are two other nominees and these two generally are the members of the BTC itself or those who lobby for it.
The ex-officio Government nominees are, of course, highly powerful and they will have a corrective influence on the club`s affairs if only they keep a watchful eye or at least give a helpful ear to those who have grievances. In the late 80s, the Principal Secretary to Finance who later became the Chief Secretary of the State as well, namely, M Sankaranarayan took a keen interest in cleaning up the BTC. He was instrumental in banning the racehorse owners from becoming Stewards after it was discovered that those on the board took dubious decisions to suit their own interests. He also recommended to the Government to set up a Racing Commission and on the recommendations of the same, a Racing Board to run racing was nominated. The Government also issued an order in 1988 to take over the racecourse, but the proposal subsequently fell through. But, Sankaranarayan always made sure that the Government collected its dues.
The incumbent longest-serving Principal Secretary of the Finance Department, I S N Prasad, has been a study in contrast. He is totally supportive of the activities of the BTC and has turned a blind eye to the shenanigans of its aficionados. Under his watch, the BTC has been going downhill, but he has turned a ‘Druthrastra`.
In the last decade or so, there has been a downslide. Those who have been following the vicissitudes of the club believe that dubious office-bearers have brought disrepute to the club, led by a failed businessman cum manipulator called Harimohan Naidu. Naidu has taken full control of the BTC, apparently with the blessings of Prasad. But, when someone brings to his notice, Naidu`s controversial decisions, Prasad pleads that “I cannot interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the club” and that “I`m helpless.”
Certainly, he is not as weak and helpless as he makes it out to be. Some years ago, when the Managing Committee members moved a no-confidence motion against a chairman who had the support of the powers that be, Prasad warned them of consequences. When the Managing Committee went ahead and removed the Chairman, the club faced the wrath of the government. There was a COD inquiry and suspension of license. The BTC officials had to go crawling on their knees to get the license restored.
However, generally, BTC has been running under the benediction of Prasad is not a matter of secret. The license fee of Rs 60,000 per day which the BTC pays to the government was fixed in 1987. It has remained the same despite the lapse of three decades. Every time an incumbent Finance Minister has proposed an increase in the license fee, Prasad has somehow dodged the issue.
On the other hand, when it came to increasing the entry fee for the general public from Rs 50 to now Rs 500 (a 500 per cent increase), the Principal Secretary has kept silent and allowed the club to fleece the gullible public. Even the Monitoring Committee report which came after a court direction, has been allowed to gather dust.
Last month, after the election of Stewards, there were several people who lobbied with the government to become the Chairman. Traditionally, the Chief Minister indicates his choice to the Finance Secretary who makes the announcement at the BTC board meeting. The announcement is usually welcomed without a word of murmur.
This time, one or two senior Stewards were quietly confident that they had the approval of the Chief Minister, Basavaraj Bommai. Much to the surprise of everyone, Uday Eswaran, the person least expected to become the Chairman, was proposed by I S N Prasad and seconded by the Police Commissioner. The Managing Committee members were shocked, but they had no choice but to approve it unanimously.
Whether Prasad consulted the Chief Minister on the Chairman`s post or made his own decision in cahoots with his friend, Harimohan Naidu, is a matter that needs to be clarified. BTC circles are agog with rumours that Eswaran is a ‘front man` of Naidu and Naidu having demitted office as a Steward recently, will continue to do back-seat driving of the BTC with Prasad helpfully looking the other way!
Those who were witnesses to the ‘election` of Eswaran as Chairman of BTC have also pointed to the illegality of the election process.
It seems that Eswaran was the ad hoc chairman who presided over the meeting to elect the Chairman. He ended up electing himself which was clearly in violation of the rules. The High Court of Tamil Nadu had ruled in a case pertaining to the election of the Chairman at MRC in 1949 that “no person can preside at his own election and return himself.”
Having come to power in challenging circumstances, Chief Minister Bommai has a lot of burden on his shoulders, but he needs to spare a few moments to set right the affairs of the BTC which had a hallowed tradition. At a time when BTC`s contemporaries in cities like Chennai and Hyderabad are making great strides, BTC cannot and should not be allowed to go to seed.
Chief Minister Bommai should make a beginning by divesting Finance Secretary I S N Prasad of the responsibility of overseeing BTC and putting it under the care of a public-spirited senior IAS officer, so that, we begin to see light at the end of a dark tunnel.