After three years of battling with bureaucracy, Chetan Bhende and wife Manju can finally enjoy the sunset on the sun deck of the AB Celestial. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
What does it take to stay afloat? After three years of doing the rounds of government offices and ministries, seeking 108 permissions for Maharashtra’s first floatel, Chetan Bhende, proprietor of AB Celestial, might just have the answer. Docked at Mahim Bay, overlooking the majestic Bandra Worli Sea Link, the floating hotel has had the city curious for the past week. After pictures of it began to do the rounds of social media, it has got a thumbs-up from over nine lakh Facebook users, say Bhende and wife Manju. But, the journey wasn’t easy.
In 2014, when Bhende, 46, dared to dream this dream, he had little idea how deep the waters ran. “Being a Mumbai boy, I wanted to give back to the city. Maharashtra has a 720-km-long untapped coastline. We knew we had a great concept on hand, and believed it would take six months at the most to launch,” he says, recalling his naivety.
The first stumbling block was the absence of a rulebook.
The four-tier floatel at sundown
“Nobody knew what was needed to let a restaurant on water be built and run. The question began at the jurisdiction level. And we learnt, that because it would float on water, the BMC, which otherwise issues licences to hospitality establishments, had no control over it. We had to approach the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) that owns the waters and jetties. The rules on land are vastly different from those on water,” he says.
The entrepreneur gives credit to the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). “They saw the idea’s potential and came on board immediately. They were influential in writing to other ministries, assuring them that they were partnering on the project with us. But, even having a government body on my side was of little help, because policies had to be drafted from scratch.”
The jetty as it looked three years ago when Bhende took possession
Initially, it was 33 permissions that had to be sought. But, the number kept rising. The Prime Minister and the Chief Minister’s nod paled before the mountainous paperwork. “When Narendra Modi visited Mumbai for the last Maritime Summit (in April, 2016), we signed an MoU with the Maharashtra Maritime Board, in the presence of CM Devendra Fadnavis, Goa CM Laxmikant Parsekar, the secretary of Government of Maharashtra, Shipping and Ports, and the secretary of Government of India, Shipping,” he says. In a masterstroke of irony, when the PM wanted to host an event on the floatel, Bhende had to turn him down. “I told them I was still struggling with permissions.”
The sun deck overlooking the Bandra-Worli Sea-Link
Bhende makes a case for one window clearance when he says that the Navy, Coastguard and the coastal police had to be approached at once. “Forget a floatel. Why should even someone, who owns a yacht, have to seek permissions from all three agencies every time he wants to host a party on it? Tomorrow, if I want to host a barge party or build a floatel in Juhu or Girgaum Chowpatty, why should I have to go through what I did? I am trying to see how that can be worked out,” says Bhende, who has invested close to 60 crore in the project.
And so, another dream is already in the pipeline – India’s first floating waterpark.
Maharashtra Tourism Minister
“While the Prime Minister spoke at length during the Make In India campaign about the ‘ease of doing business’, it’s the bureaucracy that cripples proceedings. Most of the laws date back to the British times. We are slowly working towards equipping the tourism ministry to grant permission regarding all things tourism, to minimise the touch points of seeking permissions. There will be one permit officer, who will green light projects.”