Quiet on the Western Front

Lavasa,“a city of the future”,waits to get its present back on track.

Written by Sunanda Mehta | New Delhi | Published: January 30, 2011 12:33 pm

Lavasa,“a city of the future”,waits to get its present back on track.

The stillness is telling,as you walk by the waterfront. Behind loom the seven hills of the Sahyadri range; the colourful homes of the Lavasa hill-station project are a rippled reflection in the waters of the Varasgaon reservoir lake. The scaffoldings of bamboo-and-iron on the buildings are bare; no construction workers are seen climbing up its face. The drone of machines and cement-crushers has been silenced; only a handful of weekend tourists walk around the deserted town. Despite the toy train that still hums its way around the campus,and the odd steamer that waddles over the lake,there’s no getting away from the feeling that hangs over this picture-postcard block of buildings: the party has

been interrupted.

Lavasa,“a city of the future” and India’s most audacious,ambitious private hill-station project: a 25,000 acre-township planned for 3 lakh permanent residents,and geared up for a tourist inflow of 20 lakh a year,is all dressed up,but has nowhere to go.

Since November 25 last year,construction at the site came to a halt,following the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF)’s orders.

In response to the complaints filed by NGOs about alleged irregularities in the project,the MoEF committee made a much-publicised three-day visit to the hill station this month,and concluded that the project was “in violation of” Environment Impact Assessment notifications,and that the construction activity was “unauthorised” as well as “environmentally damaging”. However,it has not ordered demolition,but proposed a penalty that developers Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) would need to cough up to continue the work. “On our part,we are happy that the ministry has recognised and accepted our stance on the ecological damage caused by Lavasa,besides the irregularities in giving away forest land to a corporation and the water problem that the project is likely to cause,” says Suniti SR,from National Allied People’s Movement,which is spearheading the cause of the villages affected by the project. “A city like Lavasa will destroy the ecologically sensitive Western Ghat region,besides displacing thousands of poor families. Employment generation is a temporary advantage. The long-term effect is the loss of land of these poor farmers,” she says.

Ajit Gulabchand,chairman of Lavasa Corporation Ltd,argues that,when an estimated 400 million Indians are expected move to urban centres in the next 30-40 years,“Lavasa couldn’t have come at a better time to create a replicable model of a new city”. The idea of this private hill station was first mooted by Sharad Pawar in the ’70s. Construction began about six years ago on the seven hills here,which were originally inhabited by tribes. Those protesting against the project also allege irregularities in land acquisition,though there is an equally vocal section of inhabitants from the 18 villages that surround the project,who support Lavasa for the employment avenues and access to medical facilities and schools it has provided.

The township started to take shape about three or four years ago,when the Ekant hotel was set up. Soon,visitors from Mumbai and Pune flocked here for the usual touristy reasons: a restaurant overlooking a placid lake,with a view of the hills. Slowly,as a hotel management training institute,a convention centre and a slew of restaurants opened along the waterfront,Lavasa became a popular weekend destination,as residential buildings were built side by side. “Till a few months ago,you wouldn’t get a place to stay for the weekend,or even a table for lunch on Sunday if you hadn’t made a booking days in advance. But the crowds have dwindled,” says a manager at the Waterfront Shaw,which still shows some signs of tourist life.

Outside,a row of food carts lines the promenade,serving everything from deep-fried potato twisters and corn,to pav bhaji and chaat. “This was a hub of activity till this order happened. The carts would be here from 11 am to 11 pm and we needed at least two people to man each. Now we close around 3 pm and even the one person standing here has little to do,” says a chef.

Till some months ago,one needed special permission or at least a contact to enter Lavasa,today you are waved in by security guards with a perfunctory query. Enter Dasve — the first of the five towns that are to come up — and you drive through spotless roads,past verdant lawns till the road curves to take you down to the main area besides the lake. Other than its residential spaces,Dasve has educational institutions like the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne,four hotels,the Apollo hospital and a convention centre.

With residences ranging from one-bedroom service apartments to lavish villas,Lavasa is planned for an estimated permanent 3 lakh residents. While apartments cost between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 85 lakh,villas are tagged at Rs 85 lakh upwards,to about Rs 2 crore. The deadline for Dasve,with 1,000 villas and 500 apartments,is this year. The remaining phases are likely to come up in another 10 years. Or more,given the current situation.

Unlike chaotic urban spaces of India,Lavasa’s blueprint is of a self-contained world — a swanky one,of suburban oases. The master plan for the city has been developed by American design consultant HOK,and is “based on the principles of New Urbanism that brings together all the essential components of daily life within walking distance of each other”.

Apart from tie-ups with biggies in education and hospitality — many of the projects are already up and running—Lavasa has sealed deals with English golfer Nick Faldo for a golf academy and a golf course; with Manchester City Football Club for a football academy; with Olympic gold-medalist Sir Steve Redgrave for a rowing academy; and with Hockey Australia for a hockey academy.

Most of its residences are yet to be allotted (former Union minister Arun Shourie is the only resident who has moved into the town with his family),but Dasve is completely sold out,according to Anuradha Paraskar,senior vice-president,marketing. “We had opened bookings for our next town,Mugaon,just before the MoEF notice on November 25,2010. The process is currently on hold,” she says.

That’s also why there has been a drop in tourists. A large number of visitors to the hill station were not just revellers looking for a weekend away from the city rush,but also potential buyers.

Despite the stop-work order,over 2,000 people still continue to live in Lavasa. These include employees,hotel workers and students. Occupancy continues to be around 70 per cent at hotels like ITC Fortune,Mercure,Water Front Shaw and Ekaant,say Lavasa officials.

“It is pertinent to note that over 9,000 daily wage labourers used to live in Lavasa when construction was in full swing,” says Paraskar,touching on the contentious issue of whether the lake town is a boon or bane for the surrounding villages.

As the villagers and NGOs wrestle with the corporate world and the government,the question remains: will the “city of the future” regain its present?

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