On Altamount Road in South Mumbai, the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storied house, Antilia, a large, tetris block of a building, looms above the surrounding area. The building, whose construction began in 2006, is named after an island believed to have existed in the Atlantic Ocean during the fifteenth century. According to the storied legends, this island gave refuge to seven Christian bishops fleeing Muslim conquerors.
The Ambani house has acquired a legend-like quality of its own. It boasts of six levels of underground parking, and has three helicopter pads. It has a spa, a terrace gym, a ballroom and a service staff of 600 to look after it. A 2014 estimate by the American business magazine Forbes puts the construction cost of the building between Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 crore. A 2014 story in the British tabloid Daily Mail story ranked the building as the world’s most expensive privately-owned building—Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace in London is technically the most expensive, but did not qualify since it is considered a governmental property.
But for over a decade, the land on which Antilia stands has been mired in controversy. Situated in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, the land, even conservatively, was valued anywhere between Rs 200 crore in 2002 and Rs 500 crore in 2007, but the Ambanis, through their corporate entity Antilia Commercial Private Limited, acquired it for a little over Rs 20 crore—at most, a little over a tenth of the cost, but likely much lower considering the appreciation in real estate prices since then.
At the heart of this matter is a tussle between two laws. Although the original owners of the land, the Currimbhoy Ebrahimbhoy Khoja Orphanage, sold the land in 2002 as they were entitled to do under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950, the land actually fell under the Wakf Act of 1995—a law that governs properties set aside by philanthropists to be used for any objective considered pious, religious or charitable under Muslim law. This made the sale of the land without the permission of the respective state wakf board—which oversees the maintenance and administration of wakf property and land—illegal. In April 2004, the Maharashtra wakf board issued a notice to Antilia Commercial asking why the property should not be restored to the board. Though the trust eventually arrived at a settlement with the board, since then, many have claimed that their process was unscrupulous. The contest over the claim to the land has been ongoing since 2005, but neither the state nor the court has ordered any effective action. After the Bombay High Court admitted the social activist and businessman Shadaab Patel’s request for a public interest litigation (PIL) in the matter on earlier this month, it may once again be in a position to order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) enquiry into the dispute.
Set up in 1892, the Currimbhoy Ebrahimbhoy Khoja Orphanage trust was, according to its constitution, meant to “provide maintenance and education to the orphane/destitute boys of the Khoja community.” The constitution also stipulates that the managing committee of the trust shall appoint a religious instructor to “teach the Koran and the general and fundamental principles of the Mohammadan religion to pupils of the orphanage.” With a mandate to house young boys and educate them about Islam, the trust was eligible to be qualified a Wakf property.