New Internationalist

The great urban juggernaut

Issue 432

India’s first ‘private city’ will do nothing to help the poor

Tarsh Thekaekara
Where next? Displaced children outside their temporary shelter. Tarsh Thekaekara

'Lavasa: a beautiful hill city to the south of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. An answer to overcrowded and congested urban India, with its crumbling infrastructure…’ That, at least, is the theory. Ajit Gulabchand, Chair of the Lavasa Corporation, estimates that India will need 400 new cities in the next 40 years to cope with rapid urbanization. And since the Government cannot cope, the private sector is stepping in with India’s first ‘private city’. In a new twist on poverty eradication, a handful of ‘insignificant’ villages are being razed to the ground to be replaced by a mirage of affluent urban India.

Lavasa is being built along 60 kilometres of lake front, in the pristine Western Ghats – a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot. It has won numerous awards for its ‘new urbanism’ design principles, and has attracted prestigious global partners including Accenture, Deloitte, Microsoft and Oxford University. It envisages a population of about 200,000 with housing – ranging from studio apartments to large villas – meant to be ‘aspirational yet affordable for multiple socio-economic classes’.

The only people unhappy with these developments are the local farmers and adivasis (indigenous people). They allege that the whole project has been a ‘land grab’ by the company, with villagers being pressured into selling their land by Lavasa’s intermediaries. One resident, Gyaneshwar Hegde, was given six cheques totalling 580,000 rupees (about $13,000) for his 45 acres of land. But they all bounced. Similar stories abound. Lavasa made many promises when the construction started, but none were kept. Now, with their land gone, people live a hand-to-mouth existence, depending on the company for erratic casual labour.

The Indian constitution supposedly gives special protection to indigenous people, especially in cases where their land is being threatened. It may be telling, then, that the daughter and son-in-law of agricultural minister Sharad Pawar had large stakes in the Lavasa project.

Building permission was obtained under the pretext of the city being both a tourism project and at an elevation of less than 1,000 metres above sea level, in order to be exempted from central government environmental clearances. Any project above 1,000 metres requires an environmental impact assessment to preserve the integrity of hill areas. But Lavasa is much more than a tourism project, and the entrance is at 1,055 metres. In addition, the lake acts as a catchment area for thousands of people, including marginal farmers living downstream, all of whom are going to be affected by the lower water flow after Lavasa have extracted all the water they need.

Senior environmentalists such as Ashish Kothari (founder of environmental organization Kalpavriksh and on the board of Greenpeace India) have raised concerns about the larger trends of development in the country. ‘Is Lavasa, with its 200,000 population, really going to address the urbanization problem in a country of over a billion people?’ queries Kothari. ‘It’s just not possible to build 400 new cities. The Government should focus on improving infrastructure in rural areas. The international trend of urbanization means a much higher ecological footprint, and is extremely worrying from an environmental perspective. Do homes ranging from “small studio apartments to large villas” really represent the “multiple socio-economic classes” of the country?’

Oxford University has now pulled out of the project, though it refuses to comment on whether this is due to the human rights issues. But the construction continues unabated, as the great Indian urban juggernaut implacably steamrolls every obstacle in its path. Money after all, makes the wheels go round.

Tarsh Thekaekara

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