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Petit Hall: A former PM's connection to a landmark building

Morarji Desai refused an offer of 8 acres of sea-facing land to the government free of cost from a descendant of Petit, a Parsi businessman. That may be a boon for Mumbai's wealthy who can afford the steep prices in that area. But it is an opportunity missed for the common man to have a government library or college next to the sea.

July 02, 2022 / 04:06 PM IST
File photo

File photo

In the prime location of Nepean Sea Road in Mumbai, lies one marquee housing project: Petit Hall. Overlooking the sea, property rates in the project are amongst the highest in India. While a 3BHK apartment sold at Rs 90,000 in the early 1960s, today its pricing is in the vicinity of Rs 90,000 per square feet. The project in itself is a cluster of four buildings. Three of those buildings were completed by 1981. The last one saw hiccups and was completed in the early 1990s. On completion, it had a building that was amongst the tallest in the country.

But this exclusive project may actually have been a public library, college or university if it was not for former Prime Minister of India and Chief Minister of Bombay, Morarji Desai. Intrigued? What does a former Prime Minister and Chief Minister have to do with a real estate project in Mumbai?

Well, the land belonged to the illustrious Petit family that played a key role in the flourishing textile industry in 19th century India. Dinshaw Maneckji Petit was amongst the first to set up a cotton mill in India when he launched The Oriental Mill in 1858. Soon thereafter he would set up another mill of double the capacity of the first. By 1887, Petit was knighted by the British Crown, which meant he was given the title of ‘Sir’. Later Petit would even be granted a Baronetcy.

Subsequent generations of the Petit family have regal linkages. Two prominent linkages are with the Tata and Wadia families. Sylla Tata (sister of JRD Tata) married Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, third Baronet. On the other hand, Rattanbai Petit married the Founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (against the wishes of the family) and created a storm in Bombay. Her daughter Dina Jinnah married Neville Wadia.

Years after India gained independence in 1947, Petit was in a generous mood. He offered to donate some of his land in Bombay to the Government. The person in charge of the government then was Morarji Desai. Petit sought an appointment with Desai to discuss the donation. Desai agreed. The distinguished architect I.M.Kadri who eventually designed the landmark Petit Hall project, tells me that Petit was hugely disappointed with the interaction. And Desai made a blunder of monumental proportions. (It would however, not be his biggest. That would be the sacking of JRD Tata from the Chairmanship of Air India in 1978, which set the stage for the degradation of the airline).

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First - Desai made Petit wait outside his office. Thereafter on entering his office, Petit would not even be offered a chair. The conversation would then begin. Kadri recalls Petit recounting that meeting with Desai when he offers his land by saying "I have eight acres of land at Nepean Sea Road overlooking the sea. I would like to give it to the Government with one proviso — that it should not be used for a post office, or telegraph office. It should be used for a library, college or university." It seemed an offer that would have been tough to refuse.

Petit was however in for a surprise. Desai instantly refused the generous offer by retorting "We don't accept donations with conditions." Perhaps he didn’t recognise the worth of the land being offered for free or he didn’t believe that such an offer could exist without any ulterior strings attached. It’s hard to say. The meeting however, ended soon thereafter. Petit then made a deal for that land with a developer – Shah Constructions. That deal would eventually result in the construction of the landmark in Mumbai - Petit Hall.

Today, the land houses the bungalow of the Dinshaw Petit family in the corner of the plot. It even has a separate entrance. But the majority of the land houses the four towers that are landmarks in the city.

Desai's refusal of the free land from Petit may be a boon for Mumbai's wealthy who can afford the steep prices in the project. But it is an opportunity missed for the common man to have a government library or college next to the sea.
Vishal Bhargava is a real estate enthusiast who views and reviews new projects, when not busy with his newstoon platform Snapnews. The views are personal.
first published: Jul 2, 2022 01:17 pm
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