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Why I Bought Dawood’s Mumbai Eatery

Former journalist and activist S. Balakrishnan (ex-chief of bureau of TOI) on his recent bid for Dawood Ibrahim’s eatery

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When I was working as chief of bureau of The Times of India (ToI) in Mumbai, twice the seized properties of Pakistan-based don Dawood Ibrahim were put on auction by the Union government. But hardly anyone turned up to bid, so great was the fear of the don. I was surprised that a fugitive, and India’s ‘most wanted’, could strike such fear in the minds of people. And then, I thought of bidding myself, but being a ToI employee, there were constraints. However, the road was clear after I retired in 2010.

I have been pressing this issue for long. I wrote to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Union finance minister P. Chidambaram, suggesting that the Centre should put these properties — most of which were situated in the central Mumbai — to use. I met the then police commissioner of Mumbai A. N. Roy, and suggested he get the Centre’s nod for using the seized properties as residential accommodation for policemen, or convert them into police stations, or chowkies. But, he showed no interest.

After Narendra Modi took charge, I wrote to him and suggested to consider it giving to my 10-year-old NGO — Desh Seva Samiti — at a reserve price for starting computer training centres. It was then the ball started rolling and the Competent Authority, SAFEMA, Mumbai, announced the auction of seven properties on 9 December. I decided to bid for Hotel Raunaq Afroz a.k.a. Delhi Zaika, in Bhendi Bazar, on behalf of Desh Seva Samiti.

Besides I wanted to start a computer centre in Bhendi Bazar for Muslim youth. I was keen on removing the don’s fear. I told myself that if no one came forward then it would be a matter of shame for the entire nation. But, luckily, Desh Seva Samiti scraped together the Rs 30 lakh required for the earnest money deposit (EMD) and an additional Rs 15,000 for the caution money deposit.

The reserve price was fixed at Rs 1.18 crore. I thought that since I would be the only bidder, I would net the property for around Rs 1.25 crore. The morning papers declared I was the only bidder. Despite threats, I went to Hotel Diplomat in South Mumbai’s Colaba area that breezy morning, to take part in the auction. I was shocked to learn that two gentlemen from the Bohri Muslim community were there to bid for the property on behalf of the cash-rich Burhani Trust, which has undertaken a huge cluster development project in Bhendi Bazar. My heart sank at the prospect of being outbid.

Ashwin Shah of the auctioneers, Ashwin & Company, conducted the auction. The bids kept soaring from the Rs 1.18-crore base price, and reached dizzying heights. But a strange sense of confidence welled up in my heart, and I told myself that whatever the amount, I could not let down the people of India and citizens of Mumbai. The Bohri gentlemen stopped at Rs 4.27 crore. I upped it by Rs 1 lakh, and to my pleasant surprise I won. Bids made through e-auction and sealed tender were also far below Rs 4.28 crore.

But now the challenge before me is to raise Rs 4 crore within a month, failing which I stand to lose the EMD of Rs 30 lakh. I have appealed to corporate friends and individuals. Help has come in from strange quarters. A vadapav seller, Padmaja Nikam, a widow doing business near Cross Maidan, has offered me Rs 5,000. This gives me hope that more institutionalised businesses will also come forward, too. The fear factor should not be allowed to dominate India’s commercial capital.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-12-2015)