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A society of and by residents

Blossom Housing Society is a familiar landmark for every resident of Marol. But few know about its fascinating history. P.R. Nair spoke to us about the obstacles that had to be overcome before it came into being.

Those familiar with Blossom Cooperative Society know that a substantial percentage of its residents work, or used to work, for Pfizer. Yet neither its name nor anything official connected with Blossom refers to the company. The explanation is that although the society was not funded by Pfizer or constructed exclusively by that company's employees, its history is indeed tied to Pfizer.

The story begins in the early '50s. Many of the men who were to be instrumental in building Blossom Society worked at that time for the East Asiatic Company, a Danish firm (Larsen and Toubro, the founders of the company that today goes by their name, also worked for it). The East Asiatic had a pharamaceutical division called Dumex (short for Danish United Medical Exports) which was bought by Pfizer.

The union's relations with the new management gradually improved and it turned its attention to constructive issues. In 1960 it started a credit society with a loan of Rs 15,000 from the management. The society started by giving people loans with a ceiling of Rs 500, a substantial sum in those days, and this was later raised to Rs 2,000. The experience taught the union something about the cooperative movement. In 1964 four union members casually wondered whether it wouldn't be possible to set up a cooperative housing society. The four were C.C. Mendes (general secretary at that time), P.R. Nair (joint secy). K.K. Kuruvilla and I.B. Pereira (both of whom are no more). Soon a committee of 11 members was formed to pursue the idea. Among the others were Kamala Karkal and V. Ramachandran who has since moved to Madras.

In 1965 they entered into an agreement with a company called Industrial Packaging to buy the site on which Blossom now stands. The rate was Rs 22 per sq yard and the total area was 5-1/2 acres, which meant a total cost of Rs 5.5 lakh.

At first things went quite smoothly. An initial payment of Rs 1.5 lakh was made. This was collected from Pfizer employees after the union sent out a circular asking people who wanted to join to contribute money. Since the municipal corporation had already approved the development plan for the site, there was no hurdle in that direction. The managing director of Pfizer, an American named James Macgee, also promised help. "My boys must live in good houses. Go ahead. I will help you," he said.

But there were hurdles ahead. Macgee was transferred and the new managing director declined to help. In any case there had been no more than an oral commitment. Pfizer was building a new plant and was strapped for funds. The men who headed the new venture had two options: return the Rs 1.5 lakh that had been collected or get the remaining money from elsewhere. To add to their problems some of those who had contributed to the initial payment started asking for their money back. So the membership of the proposed society was thrown open to employees of other companies like Hindustan Lever, Tata firms and so on.

Meanwhile the authorities registered the land that had been bought, and that was a psychological boost. The leaders of the venture assured members that 60% of the cost of the project would be met through a loan from the Bombay Cooperative Housing Finance Society, a government venture.

Meanwhile, they borrowed from members of the cooperative. Pfizer had no provision for making loans to employees out of their provident fund, and the union forced the management to incorporate this provision. Despite all this, on the day that the final payment for the land was to be made, there was a shortage of Rs 70,000 and the land had to be mortgaged back to the sellers for three months.

On 5 December 1965 the foundation stone of the proposed society was laid by Madhavan, the then mayor of Bombay. In 1966 the society applied for a loan from the Bombay Cooperative Housing Finance Society. But meanwhile the rules had changed. Loans were to be made only to people domiciled in Bombay for 25 years, a requirement that many of the members of the society would not have met. Also, loans would not be made to societies with more than 75 members. The new society did not meet this requirement too. Recalls Nair: "There were so many hassles and I used to return from work so worried that I decided to send my family back to Kerala for one year."

Fortunately, the rules were relaxed the next year. The domicile requirement was reduced to 15 years and a special concession was made to the proposed Blossom Society on the number of members. Each individual member had to give an undertaking that his or her monthly salary was less than Rs 2,000 and the society had to get letters from all of them saying so. The loan amount was 20 times the monthly salary and many members drew monthly salaries much less than this, which meant that the loan was corresponding smaller.

To tide over this problem, the society asked those who could afford to do so to pay the full amount. Despite all its efforts the society owed the contractor, E.S. Andrades, Rs 10-1/2 lakh by the time it made its first payment. The architect incidentally was Charles Sabrino who used to work for the East Asiatic Company.

The society had promised its members that they would get their flats within 3-1/2 years. And it lived up to its promise. In April and May 1969 it issued letters of possession to 90% of its members who occupied the flats during the vacation. Building No 11 was completed a little later. The society was officially inaugurated by P.G. Kher, the then urban development minister of Maharashtra.

The total cost of the project including the land was Rs 65 lakh. The loan sanctioned was Rs 30 lakh and of this, the last instalment of Rs 70,000 was not taken. It was not until 1990 that the loan was finally paid off.

For residents of Mumbai today, it seems difficult to believe that there was a time when people could come together to form a society to buy land and construct apartment buildings. Even then, the efforts required were heroic. Today it is only a dream. As Nair says: "The high price of land and the land sharks' domination of the industry makes open plot societies like this an impossibility."

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