India is urbanizing at an unprecedented rate; it is predicted that its urban population will grow from 308 million to 750 million by 2050. However, India’s current cities are ill-equipped to accept such large numbers of migrants. Plagued by inadequate social and physical infrastructure, congestion, pollution and therefore poor livability and expensive real estate, these cities are only exacerbating the housing crisis associated with India’s growing population (Gulabchand 2010).
The Union Ministry of Urban Development is responsible for the Smart Cities Mission, an urban renewal initiative which seeks to retrofit one hundred existing mid-sized cities and transform them into citizen-friendly, sustainable satellite cities. (Ministry of Urban Development 2015). Retrofitting existing cities is important for the enhancement of living conditions but does not create a sufficient number of new houses or jobs. To solve this issue, both private and government organizations are exploring the creation of entirely new urban areas, whose construction will generate both employment and housing opportunities. Lavasa is a new master-planned city in the state of Maharashtra conceived for this purpose. As a privately funded venture, Lavasa strives to be both an eco-friendly city and a model for other new cities in India (New Cities Foundation).
Lavasa was planned by HOK and construction began in 2004 by Hindustan Construction Company (HCC), owned by Ajit Gulabchand, the city’s mastermind. Following the principles of new urbanism, Lavasa aims to be a walkable and sustainable city, devoting seventy percent of the land to green space and natural landscape. Upon completion in 2021, the city will hold 300,000 people within 100 square kilometers of land (New Cities Foundation).
Background and Intentions
Lavasa is being built amongst the Sahayadri Mountains as India’s first planned hill city post-independence (New Cities Foundation). Traditionally, hill cities were built by British colonists looking for high locations to construct their cities in order to escape the insufferable summer heat (Kennedy 1996). Planning and development in India have not matched the massive influx of rural migrants to urban areas. In particular, unemployment in rural villages has stimulated movement towards the high-wage jobs and amenities found in cities. Cities have consequently grown quickly and haphazardly, leading to poor living conditions (Kumari 2014). While Lavasa will have to abide by the state’s planning policies and legislation, it is in a unique position due to its private status since it is financed by private organizations (New Cities Foundation). Whereas services in public cities are financed by taxes, private cities use a “payment for benefits” system to fund public amenities (Tandon 2014). Upon completion, Lavasa will be a city of 12,500 acres and five united towns: Dasve, Mugaon, Dhamanohol, Sakhri-Wadvali, and a Central Business District. The city is being built town-by-town to give residents the impression that they are living in a completed city (New Cities Foundation). Dasve and Mugaon are the only towns finished thus far (Tandon 2014). Lavasa’s design is inspired by the Mediterranean city of Portofino, Italy as well as other dense and walkable European communities (Kennard and Provost 2015).
As stated by the project’s head, Lavasa’s main goal is to “create a real city where young Indians can find jobs and experience a better lifestyle than in the country’s current overcrowded metropolises” (North, 2015). A major means to reaching this overarching goal is accomplishing smaller eco goals that will ensure an improved quality of life. Lavasa also hopes to become an educational powerhouse and an international tourism destination, eventually attracting 2,000,000 tourists annually (Tandon 2014). In pursuit of this goal, the city is building many attractions including a golf course, football academy, theme park, and university (Lavasa Corporation Limited 2009; Sengupta 2010). However, many of these initial partnerships have since fallen through, with both athletes and schools removing themselves from the projects (The Indian Express 2010).
Challenges and Shortcomings
Lavasa as an Eco City
Lavasa has been branding itself as an eco-city and therefore has the intentions of using technology to meet sustainability goals. Specifically, it aims to restore seventy percent of previously deforested land through detailed landscaping, re-forestation and slope greening, reduce carbon emissions by thirty percent, reduce potable water consumption by sixty-five percent and reduce landfill waste by ninety-five percent (New Cities Foundation). In order to achieve these goals, Lavasa is implementing a two-pronged approach of protecting the existing natural landscape and improving the environment using hydro-seeding, geo-matting and beautification of ravines (CEO Water Mandate). These goals are useful to the extent that they actually guide construction. However, many of the practices that have been used are anything but eco-friendly. Construction of Lavasa halted in 2010 when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests claimed that Lavasa Corporation failed to acquire environmental clearance from the proper government agencies. Construction was allowed to continue after the project obtained post facto clearance, which included penalties for failing to receive permission originally as well as the requirement to start an economic restoration fund (Dutta and Shrivastava 2011).
Later, an evaluation committee found that environmental laws were being violated, particularly in regards to the haphazard cutting of hills. The results of such carelessness are potentially grave; landslides, erosion, and subsequent pollution of water are likely consequences. Lavasa attempted to justify their hill-cutting practices by claiming that using locally available construction materials was more eco-friendly than transporting resources to the site, but residents in the surrounding area disagreed, stating that the blasting of hillsides for excavating stone has contaminated their water supplies (Dutta and Shrivastava 2011). There have also been reports of Lavasa worsening deforestation by cutting down more trees than necessary to complete their project (Suroor 2009). While seventy percent of the deforested land is set to be replanted, the original ecology will be unreplaceable as it occurred organically after not being disturbed for years. (Jyotirmay International School 2014) Stone quarrying as well as deforestation have recently been blamed for a deadly landslide in Pune, turning potential consequences into reality for Lavasa’s “mindless deforestation aimed at construction” (BBC Monitoring 2014).
Water supply issues have been a concern for towns in the Lavasa area since the conception of the city. While the Lavasa Corporation cannot claim rights to any water resources, they are allowed to build eight weirs in order to control the flow of water to construct areas for water sports, parks, and villas. Since the first dam was built, there has been no flow of water down stream during the summer, which exacerbates Pune’s water scarcity issues (Mumtaz 2011). Coupled with an increasing population, residents of Pune are finding it harder to get water while Lavasa stockpiles it for leisure activities. Many are angered by reports of well-maintained gardens and water being used for construction activities as well (Deshpande 2012). Blog posts and other articles illustrate the resentment felt by the average citizen towards Lavasa. In a section of a blog post titled “Allowing ghettos around reservoirs means handing over India’s water resources to the super-privileged”, one person writes, “In the coming decade, water scarcity is expected to reach crisis proportions, and may create civil-war like situations. At a time like this, permitting such ghettos is a mala fide act” (Rao 2011). The substantial construction and infrastructure changes have only had adverse consequences for distant villages and cities, allowing officials to overlook the harm they are doing in their continued quest to complete Lavasa at any cost. A true eco-city uses sustainable practices from conception to completion; working to repair a damaged ecosystem is vital, but mitigating that damage in the first place is arguably more important. Lavasa, therefore, appears to be postponing its eco city status, at least until after construction is complete.
Lavasa as a Model City
Gulabchand believes that new cities are the solution to the population crisis and claims that Lavasa was built not only to accommodate India’s rapidly burgeoning population, but also to create a city where young Indians can have access to a better lifestyle than in the country’s congested megalopolises (North 2015). In this way, Lavasa was purposefully designed to contrast existing Indian cities. While Lavasa aims to be a replicable model that other new cities in India can use for inspiration in their own development journeys, many aspects of the city make it unlikely to serve as a standard. To start, the largest group of people that are moving to cities in search of new employment opportunities are members of India’s low class. Lavasa, however, is clearly not being built to cater to India’s urban poor. The prices of Lavasa’s least expensive housing units range from $17,000 to $36,000, prices that are too high for many members of the middle class (Kennard and Provost 2015). Moreover, the city’s amenities make it obvious that the city would rather be a luxury tourist destination than a location for Indian families to find jobs and start their lives. Golf courses, football academies, and country clubs are more suggestive of ways the bored elite can spend their time than places that offer life-changing career opportunities for young professionals.
City officials have also been accused of forcibly removing the area’s original residents and not compensating them fairly for their resettlement costs. Members of the Katkari, Dhangar, and Kundi Maratha tribes were interviewed by school children who reported their stories of loss of land in a blog. Before construction work began, “thugs” were sent around to acquire the land owned by the local tribal populations, often through unfair means such as bribes, receiving only one signature from an entire family, or trading liquor. Other locals-turned-activists reported laying down on their property in failed attempts to stop their land from being turned into roads or being beat up when they refused to give up their land. (Jyotirmay International School 2014). Such forced evictions are oftentimes just the start of patterns of exclusion, as removing an entire group of people to construct a new city does not allude to future inclusionary practices. The marginalization of certain groups is a feature of Lavasa that mitigates its ability to serve as a model city.
Additional reports on the city’s status are less than glowing. One reporter commented on the dismal state of construction that appears if one looks under the pretty, painted surface of the Mediterranean-style buildings. Walls patched with tape, wires hanging from ceilings, and huge water stains are a few of Lavasa’s less-than-perfect features (Kennard and Provost 2015). Another criticism of Lavasa is its failure to develop a unique character that entices people to resettle. Many young people have come to the area for its financial benefits but plan on leaving once they have earned some money, claiming that the city does not offer the chance for “a proper life”. One couple contends that the city, while nice for visiting, lacks schools and hospitals despite its expensive prices. While they compliment the fact that everything in Lavasa is planned and works, unlike other Indian cities, its cons are too many for them to relocate (Kennard and Provost 2015). Lavasa’s inability to convince people to permanently settle within its boundaries furthers existing patterns of exclusion and make it an unpopular model for other new planned cities in India.
Lavasa has been plagued by many legal issues since its conception, contrasting the pure image of the city that is evoked by its slogan “Live, Learn, Work, and Play in Harmony with Nature” (Lavasa Corporation Limited 2014). Many laws have been skirted and tweaked so that the construction of Lavasa could take place as easily as possible for the developers. For instance, Lavasa is being promoted as a hill station despite its extremely hot summer temperatures in order to take advantage of certain laws enacted to encourage tourism. According to one Maharashtra law, there are relaxed regulations for the transfer of tribal and agricultural land for industrial purposes for new hill stations. Not only is Lavasa taking advantage of these concessions, they also had the definition of a hill station officially modified to meet their needs. Many planning policies that did not agree with Lavasa’s master plan were rewritten so that the city could be constructed free from legal limitations. Laws forbidding the cutting of hills, limiting new developments to 2000 hectares, or prohibiting construction on slopes with a gradient steeper than five to one were altered to make the illegal legal at Lavasa’s convenience (Dutta and Shrivastava 2011).
Gulabchand’s political connections were also used strategically to help the construction at Lavasa. It has been suggested that laws were altered easily for Lavasa due to the influential members on the board of the project. Company stakeholders include people such as the daughter of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, as well as her husband. The nephew of Sharad Pawar worked for the group which transferred over 140 hectares of land to the Lavasa Corporation in 2001. This transfer of land reportedly happened at rates far below market value and without the permission of the revenue department, making the handover illegal. Furthermore, Maharashtra’s hill city policy was amended in 2007 to change the law from completely prohibiting hill cutting to encouraging developers to minimize their hill cutting. Further amendments enabled construction on steeper gradients and relaxed the building policies to allow the construction of three story buildings in more residential areas. In a private meeting between Gulabchand, Sharad Pawar, and his senior officials, Gulabchand requested a number of other concessions be made, including the allowance of six story buildings, a mixed-use town center, and the reduction of the non-development zone along the reservoir from one hundred meters to thirty meters. These demands were all met within the year and Lake City Corporation became a special planning authority with the right to plan and approve development in the area (Dutta and Shrivastava 2011).
Newspapers report extensively on the numerous lawsuits that have been filed against Lavasa. The number of litigations has risen to 156 since the company filed its first share sale documents with the Securities and Exchange Board of India. These pending lawsuits are reportedly over disputes of land acquisition practices as well as violated environmental laws (Joshi and Narayan 2014). Another legal setback for Lavasa came when the Maharashtra ordered the return of 200 acres of land to tribal people after it was wrongfully taken from them (Banerjee 2015).
The manner in which the laws were changed to allow for expedited construction hints at corruption and unlawful actions. Furthermore, the results of these altered laws are detrimental to the environment, which contrasts with Lavasa’s goal of being an eco-city. While generating an income off of such a project is important, it does not necessarily have to exclude eco-friendly and lawful construction practices. Gulabchand and other financers, however, appear to be ignoring Lavasa’s eco-city status, at least in the building portion of the project. The bending and altering of laws exclude Lavasa from being a model city to a certain extent as it would be difficult for other similar cities to exist without the political connections held by many of Lavasa’s stakeholders.
Lavasa, and other similar new-master planned cities, are regarded by many as a panacea for all of India’s urban challenges. Built as the antithesis to the overcrowded, congested and polluted metropolises of India’s past and present, Lavasa is meant to be not only a solution to a growing housing crisis, but also a model for future developments looking to carve out spheres of health, sustainability and productivity in an otherwise struggling environment. However, it appears unlikely that Lavasa will actually become such a utopian oasis.
Marred by corruption and bribery, the construction of Lavasa has exposed its financers to be fraudulent businessmen intending to earn money at any cost, without regard for environmental laws or the well-being of Indian citizens. While it claims to have been constructed for young people looking to find jobs and start their careers, Lavasa’s real estate prices and its branding as a tourist destination are more appropriate for established families looking for a vacation home. In fact, Lavasa has already created some clear patterns of exclusion with the forced eviction of local tribes and inability to attract permanent residents. The sheer amount of malfeasance associated with the project undermines the city’s ability to serve as a model for future cities catering to expanding populations. Lavasa misses the mark for an eco-city as well. Haphazard hill-cutting, deforestation and ignored environmental laws are indicative of a city that is being built for a profit, not a city that aims to be a new sustainable model. Ultimately, Lavasa’s ability to serve as an eco city and model city is constrained by the city’s shady business deals in the name of profit maximization.
Jennifer Combs is an urban studies and linguistics major at McGill University in Montreal.
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