Aamby Valley

Once A Place For India's Richest To Unwind, Aamby Valley Is Now Deserted

4:40 PM

Once A Place For India's Richest To Unwind,
Aamby Valley Is Now Deserted


The golf course that has no takers

Around 573 timber chalets and the customised villas, costing anywhere between Rs 8 crore and Rs 20 crore, are mostly empty, and so are the streets once lined with Bougainvillea. All one can spot while entering the township now are rows of abandoned motorbikes and buses that the staff used to cater the needs and demands of the residents.

Like all Sahara Group businesses, the fortunes of the township, spread over 10,500 acres off Lonavala, 120 km from Mumbai, started dipping with the rise of Subrata Roy's troubles in early 2014 when the Supreme Court ordered his arrest for allegedly failing to refund investors Rs 24,000 crore deposits. The lockdown, however, was announced this October with around 1,600 of the 2,000 township staff suspended, and their salaries withheld.

Most of the workers who ran the township have left, leaving behind what appears to be a palace compound of a deposed dictator. For the past two months, most shops have shut, a dozen restaurants have stopped operations, and a theatre has downed the shutters. What continues to exist is a provisions store, which is open at all times, a samosa-jalebi eatery and a panwala, who is open in the evening. Also, there is electricity and water supply.

All that remains of the 256-acre golf course -- where glamourous former tennis player Anna Kournikova once took a buggy ride with Subrata Roy Sahara, the township's landlord - are the water sprinklers. The famous airstrip that hosted private jets of India's who's who stopped functioning about three months ago.



Mumbai-based businessman Vadilal Gada purchased a plot in Aamby Valley City six years ago, and has seen its downfall from close quarters. "At its zenith, one could sleep on the roads here," he said wistfully. "This place was heaven on earth and I have travelled a bit of earth to make such a claim," Gada, who's travelled 60 countries, told Mumbai Mirror.

"It's shocking to see the level of the decline. Out of three, there's only one swimming pool in working condition but there's no lifeguard around. You can't book a round of golf, and unless you have supplies in your villa, you will go hungry because the restaurants are shut," he said.

A few people who visit their villas for a week or two every month ensure there's a full-time caretaker to help with the daily requirements. Entrepreneur Narendra Firodia, who has spent countless afternoons on the golf course during the township's pomp, said he hasn't been able to complete the construction on the plot he purchased four years ago because of the legal hassles surrounding the place.

"Those paying regular maintenance were entitled to 24-night free stay in a Sahara hotel till their villas were constructed. That stopped two months ago. On paper, I own a property in Aamby Valley City but I can't go and live there," Firodia said.

Interior designer Bharat Kapoor, who has created 50 villas in Aamby Valley City and who owns a property there, said the township's staff was driven out in the most unceremonious manner possible. "They sacked people who have been working here for 16, 18 years. Many of them didn't have the means to even return home," he said.

Firodia added that a resident last month complained his TV was stolen. It could be the first case of theft in the township, he said. "Aamby Valley City still has amenities worth billions of rupees and its security held the place together. Now, most guards are gone," he said. Talking of amenities, Rs 60 crore were spent on the musical fountains alone. "Such is the situation now that your child will not even get an icecream here," Firodia said.



Is the decline engineered?

Questions are raised about the manner in which the township was 'downgraded' after the Supreme Court on August 10 rejected Sahara's plea to put the Aamby Valley auction on hold. Earlier, the base price for the township was set at Rs 37,392 crore, and the Sahara Group's contention was the property was worth at least Rs 1 lakh crore.

After the first auction held in October wasn't fruitful, the Supreme Court, in the November 23 order has directed the auction process to start afresh.

The Supreme Court also allowed two Bombay High Court judges to adopt procedures to facilitate the auctioning of the Aamby Valley properties through the Official Liquidator, and said it will not allow any obstruction in the process. The auction process will start today, even as the Supreme Court has asked the court receiver to ensure the property is maintained at all times.

One of the few township staffers still hanging in there with the hope that he'll be paid his dues said the shutdown was "too swift, too sudden". "I worked for the Hospitality and Purchase section. Usually when a place is in the process of shutting down, salaries and dues are cleared. Here everything was so sudden, nobody had the time to react. The stocks and supplies are rotting in our godowns," the staffer said.



The 670-member Aamby Valley Kamgar Sangathan, formed in August, claimed the shutdown was effected only to create a hindrance in the auction process - a charge Sahara's lawyers vehemently deny.

Today, the once bustling reception of the main office is manned by a guard, who doubles up as receptionist. His service contract hasn't been renewed, and he has no idea for how long will he be allowed inside.

One of the property owners, a techie who purchased a one-acre plot a few years ago, said a major attraction for him was the helicopter rides to the township from Mumbai. "By the time we had started constructing our home, the chopper rides were the first to be put on hold," he said.

Pointing to the half-a-km dimly lit stretch near his property, he said, "There used to be at least seven guards manning this road. Now there's none."

Another property owner tells a story of his neighbour keeping a suitcase filled with jewellery in his car's boot. "The couple's son opened the car boot and his mother panicked, but the guards told her not to worry. 'This is Aamby Valley. Thieves don't enter this place,' they said. That's history," the property owner said.



What's still running

A hospital, all of which has one doctor and a few antivenom immunoglubin, is nothing to speak about but the educational institute- the International School Aamby - caters to around 70 students and has a staff of 25. The boarding for the students is also functional.

Then there's a stable, where 13 horses owned by Sahara strut around. The stable was manned by a staff of 14, which has been brought down to three.

Aamby Valley City's decline has also spelt doom for the 10 villages abutting the property. After Sahara acquired the property in the 1990s, several youths from the nearby Ambavane village found employment. "Half pant wale full pant waale ho gaye the," one of the villagers said.

The jobs have declined, and these villagers are asking the same questions that some of the swish set residing in the villas some distance away have.

The workers that remain are managing the bare basics of the property.

While the auction will not affect the ownership of these villas, whether the township will ever regain its glow is anybody's guess. The residents remain hopeful that the court of law will set things right.

In a communication to this newspaper, the Aamby Valley City Residents Association said: "The association has filed two intervention applications before the Supreme Court for enforcement of the members' rights as bona fide property owners under the registered documents, and also for continued maintenance of all facilities, services and privileges."



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WHAT THE SAHARA GROUP SAYS

The Sahara Group said the township's lockdown was carried out as per the law. "The company has followed all legal provisions for declaring the lockout. Wages are paid to the workers as per the legal provision for the notice period.

"City's operation and maintenance are continuing unaffected with the help of required employees to avoid any inconvenience to the residents, with required services such as IB School, hospital, roads, water supplies and sewerage, solid waste and power supplies, grocery shop, provision of food and supplies continuing as before," the group said in a statement.


- by Sharmeen Hakim

Source :- Mumbai Mirror

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