I’ve been meaning to write this one for a few weeks now, but a smidgeony matter of having to write about 5,000 words in three days got in my way. Before that, well, let’s focus on writing this and not explanations. A couple of weeks ago, I got to visit Lavasa, “India’s First Planned City”. It’s about five hours from Mumbai and is being touted as the Cape Town of Maharashtra. Don’t roll your eyes at me. I didn’t come up with that phrase. Anyway, so it was off to Lavasa for a day and even as we drove in through the gates of Lavasa, I told myself, “MUST write this up ASAP” (yes, when I talk to myself, there are a lot of CAPS). Then, I did nothing of the sort. Not even after I’d come back to Mumbai a day later. Not even an entirely unemployed week later. Some would call this procrastination. I call it timing. Because yesterday, there was the first little creak in Lavasa’s public image machinery when the environment ministry issued a show-cause notice to the owners of Lavasa for flouting green laws, forcing an immediate halt in construction. So now, when I write about Lavasa, it’s a timely peek inside the “planned hill city”.
Procrastination. It’s a gift.
But never mind my talents. Lavasa. It was interesting to go there so soon after listening to Charles Correa talk about the importance of planning cities. Lavasa is the brainchild of HCC Construction, possibly most famous for building the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai. Ajit Gulabchand, head honcho of HCC, came up with the idea of making a city a few years ago. I vaguely recall meeting a beak-nosed chap at a party, aeons ago, who spoke rather spiritedly about how amazing Gulabchand’s vision of this city was and how visionary Gulabchand in general was. Obviously Beak Nose was Gulabchand’s employee, but stepping away from that oily pool of flattery, I admit to being rather intrigued by the idea that a man wanted to build a city. It sounded like something a crazed king or a Chinese head of state would do. Mughal emperors had tried it repeatedly with zero luck and emptier treasuries — Akbar built and abandoned Fatehpur Sikri, Tughlak had his Daulatabad Experiment — but at least they left us with some incredible architecture in the process. Was Ajit Gulabchand our Henry Ford? Would a few hundred years’ worth of building experience, and the fact that the land is in India and not the Amazon, make Gulabchand’s experiment more successful? Would he name it after himself? What would be left behind if Gulabchand’s city failed, I wondered. Then eight martinis marched up to me, brandishing their olives-on-toothpicks, and I forgot all about it, him, whatever.
While I spent years coming to terms with the fact that I have no inner James Bond, Gulabchand and HCC got down to the business of building his city, and they called it Lavasa. Not to be confused with Lavazza. They bought about 25,000 acres (or four villages, from the look of things) of picturesque-ness in the Sahyadri Hills, including an area with a little inlet of water. Their website says that the city is built according to the principles of “New Urbanism” and is “planned for people across the socio economic spectrum”, which is probably code for “there will be roads and pavements” and “you don’t need to bring your maid from Mumbai if you move here; there’ll be some poor-ish people”. I don’t read business newspapers much, but I don’t think there’s been much talk about HCC’s work up in the Sahyadris. They bought, blasted, built without much public hoo-haa until last year, when enormous boards advertising Lavasa popped up on the Mumbai-Pune Highway. People, mostly rich, started whispering about richer people, crazy retired Parsis and dubious politicians who had either bought villas in Lavasa or wanted to do so. Apparently, it was beautiful and with infrastructure that was “like abroad”. Former minister and journalist Arun Shourie apparently LOVED living there.
The only little growl I heard about Lavasa was from the activist Anna Hazare. According to a little piece in India Today, Hazare had accused HCC of bending rules, not having the necessary completion certificates, and of getting unfair advantages and reprieves because Maharashtra’s political muscleman Sharad Pawar’s daughter and son in-law are partners in the project. Which no doubt means Pawar is intimately and financially involved in Lavasa. Hazare said that if the government didn’t take action against Lavasa by November 11, he would return his Padma Bhushan award and go on a hunger strike.
I’ve no idea whether Hazare carried through with his threat but having been to Lavasa, I can completely understand why it doesn’t have completion certificates. Because it’s emphatically incomplete. It covers an enormous area of which I only saw one part, called Dasve town. Dasve has a semblance of urbanity, by which I mean a few roads, a couple of buildings and electricity. There’s a small strip that has been completed and feels a bit like Powai but with much better weather. It looks like a movie set: brightly coloured buildings (perhaps Shourie lives in one of them), twinkling lights and a few artfully-arranged shops, surrounded by the metallic mess of construction work and unpeopled hills. Further off, there’s a “country club” and a hotel. Look out of the hotel window, and all you see are building machinery that have spat out earth and steel rods. Labourers come in by the truckloads every morning and aside from the security guards, few stay overnight. Everything from waiters to fruit juice has to be brought in to Lavasa. There’s absolutely nothing natural or indigenous in there.
Apparently, Lavasa has become quite popular with rich Pune kids, college students in particular. There are buses plying between Pune and Dasve, which is a 2-hour journey. That little movie-set strip is perfect for dates; you can totally pretend you’re not in India or that you’re in a movie. It’s like the way dates are shown in foreign cafés in those coffee or phone ads. Plus, you’re stuck there until the next bus, so you’ve got to hang out with each other. Don’t come for a date alone, unless of course you’re looking for privacy. Insert giggle here. From the look and sound of things, and yes I spent most of my time eavesdropping, if Lavasa opens up a couple of casinos and made quickie marriages possible, it could be our Las Vegas.
All sorts of whispers fluttered about Lavasa while I was there. Apparently, HCC had given Rs. 2 crore or thereabouts to some event-management wing of the Times of India and told them that Lavasa should get some media attention, but not the kind of media attention that will result in investigative reporting. Net result: the Literature Live! festival, the last day of which was at Lavasa. Investigative reporting would be pointless, some grumbled subsonically, because HCC had bribed all major media heads so that negative stories about Lavasa wouldn’t come out in the news. The so-called city was sitting on a pile of scams but no one was going to be able to report this, even if they tried. (I have to say though, it didn’t look like anyone I met was even remotely interested in doing any of the interviews or scoping around for what could lead to reporting the Lavasa story.) More effective a silencer than bribes was Pawar’s involvement. Who in their right mind wanted to mess with him?
But rather than the possible scams, as I looked around the little bit of Lavasa that can be seen without a hard hat and gumboots, I wanted to know what made Lavasa a city and not a seriously huge residential complex. There were so many questions I had about law and order, infrastructure and governance. Who runs a private city? Where do they stand in the political and bureaucratic system that runs this country? Whose in charge of law and order? Do all residents, regardless of where they fit in the “socio economic spectrum” have equal ownership over the public areas? Of course, there’s no reason to raise any such questions now. For all the signs pointing out town halls, the fancy bus-stops and the fairy-light strewn trees, at present the place feels eerier than a ghost town. There are only absences, and construction sites in Lavasa right now. This doesn’t mean that Lavasa won’t be a city in, say, ten years, but first they’ll have to calm the environment Minister Jairam Ramesh down.
I’m waiting to see how quietly that matter gets settled.