MUMBAI: Nikhil Zaveri has been missing for more than a month. In a country where thousands of people fall through the cracks every year, this isn't remarkable in itself. Said to be in his 50s, Zaveri has Huntington's disease — a hereditary nerve disorder that can lead to progressive deterioration in cognitive functions and other psychiatric issues.
Twice-divorced and living with his sister after having had to leave his own house because of debts, relatives said the police have been unable to pick up any trace of the man. But what makes the case significant is that Zaveri owns a piece of land on Mumbai's Nepean Sea Road that could be worth as much as Rs 1,300 crore.
The plot is home to the now-defunct Palm Beach School, a once-prestigious institution where south Mumbai's wealthy businessmen vied to get admission for their children.
Before his disappearance, Zaveri had plans to revive the school, which closed in 2007, and develop part of the plot as a real estate project. "Zaveri came to me to seek our help in getting documents in order so that he can build an international high school on that site," said Vikram Trivedi, managing partner of Mumbai-based law firm Manilal Kher Ambalal & Co. "We are working on it. However, he went missing soon afterwards."
Given the potential of the land, Zaveri used to be hounded by developers and brokers with business proposal While some of these did proceed beyond initial discussions, the two sides could never reach an agreement on commercial terms. The family, however, isn't ready to name any particular developer or broker Zaveri may have negotiated with.
A picture of Zaveri shows a slight man with gray, wispy hair smiling uncertainly at the camera. From all accounts, he was alone and ailing and finding it difficult to manage, debilitated by illness, while living at the Nepean Sea Road address. It was when he found himself unable to cope with creditors that Zaveri went to live with his sister and her family in Kandivali, a north Mumbai suburb.
"It was very difficult for him and then due to some old dues he had to vacate his home overnight," said a family member.
"We are very concerned for his well-being since it's over a month," said the family member, who has filed a missing person's complaint at the Samta Nagar police station in Kandivali. The police said they are looking into all possible angles, including trying to trace Zaveri's contacts by phone or otherwise.
"Due to his health, he himself might not be able to locate where he is and further we are concerned because he is the owner of a property, which might be valued high due to its privileged location," said one of the police officials, who didn't want to be named.
Zaveri had gone missing a few times earlier but was soon discovered at the old school building. "Nikhil was a chain smoker and used to go to the shop to buy cigarettes," said one of his relatives. "We thought he would return soon but when he didn't turn up the whole night, we started worrying about him. Due to his physical and mental condition, he was not keeping his cell phone with him."
The family is concerned about Zaveri's safety, especially since developers are circling the property, the dilapidated nature of which contrasts sharply with the area's much tonier surroundings.
"If you count location and FSI (floor space index) for the developable area, this property would be valued at around Rs 1,300 crore in the current market," said a relative. "On many occasions, Nikhil told us that he wanted to develop the property and many builders have shown interest. However, he was more keen to give it to someone who can manage the school and commercial property but not a builder." According to one of Zaveri's close associates who didn't want be named, he was single minded in his desire to get the school rebuilt.
"He approached me to help him out for rebuilding the school and I accompanied him to meet a lawyer for fulfilling all requirements before he went missing from his brother-in-law's home," the person said.
As the hunt for Zaveri goes on, the yellow, three-storey, sea-facing building that once echoed to the sounds of boisterous children sits silent and empty, waiting for its custodian's return.