City without soul


Lavasa Corporation’s Rs 1, 40,000-crore mega city project near Pune is in a mess following protests from farmers, reports Tarsh Thekaekara

Wonderland But only for the very rich who have shares in the corporation
Wonderland But only for the very rich who have shares in the corporation

A FEW SLEEPY villages in the hills, about an hour’s drive from Pune, are suddenly buzzing with activity. Lavasa Corporation, a subsidiary of the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC), is spending Rs 140,000 crore to ‘clean out’ these villages (read tribals and marginal farmers) and build a world-class city in its place.

Those pushing the project argue that urban India, bursting at its seams, just cannot cope with the large-scale migration from rural areas till there are more cities. And they are right. HCC and Lavasa Corporation Chairman Ajit Gulabchand estimates that nearly 400 cities would be needed in the next 40 years to cope with India’s rapid urbanisation. His solution is to extend public-private partnerships (PPP) to the building of cities as well, and give the builders ownership rights.

The first of these, Lavasa City, is to be built along 60 km of lakefront near the Varasgaon dam near Pune. On 12,500 acres will come up a cutting-edge centre of education, health and business, a business school launched by the UK’s Oxford University, a medical facility run by the Apollo group, and a business hub with Accenture and Deloitte as central players. The city’s two lakh citizens (excluding Lavasa’s original inhabitants of course) will be provided studio apartments, exquisite villas – the works.

But the displaced call it one more case of brazen land-grab. Gyaneshwar Vishnu Shedge of Mugaon village produced six bounced cheques for Rs 5.8 lakh that Kane Associates paid him for acquiring his 18 hectares. He also didn’t get any compensation – barring small sums from middlemen who fraudulently claimed these were down payments. In truth these were complete sale deeds.

Critics of the project say the plan violates a host of statutes and laws, such as Article 46 of the Constitution, the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code and Tenancy Laws (Amendment) Act, 1974 and the Maharashtra Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Act, 1974. They cite the company’s 2004 annual returns, which show Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s son-in-law, Bhalchandra Sadananad, and daughter, Sadanand Supriya, jointly holding 7.49 lakh equity shares and 29 lakh redeemable preference shares. Gulabchand has donated £7.4 million to the University of Oxford for creating an Ajit Gulabchand chair.

Under fire CMD of Hindustan Construction Ajit Gulabchand
Under fire CMD of Hindustan Construction Ajit Gulabchand
Photo: AFP

Enticed by grandiose offers of livelihoods, education and development, none of which has so far materialised, some locals were relocated to higher, less suitable hill slopes. Till Lavasa happened, they lived under a limited cash economy, supplemented by a barter system involving neighbouring villages. But now these landless are at the total mercy of Lavasa, which employs very few locals. Their access to the lake for bathing, washing and even drinking water is strictly barred and they are supplied rationed water from tankers. Large signs around the lake say ‘No Swimming, Drinking Water’. What the corporation doesn’t, however, mind having around are petrol-run speedboats. For in Lavasa’s scheme of things, only the impoverished locals can contaminate the lovely lake.

Their cause is now being taken up by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, headed by Medha Patkar, as well as other reputed NGOs like the National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS).

But Gulabchand dismisses the allegations as baseless and insists that the land was bought through the proper channels. Claiming unflinching support from the local people, he says they have free and unhindered access to water and describes the protesters as extremists opposed to India’s development. On their part, these ‘extremists’ say this is a white lie.

It is claimed that the builders falsely claimed they were into tourism to obtain clearance for construction. Tourism projects erected at an elevation of less than 1,000 m are exempted from environmental clearances. But Lavasa is barely a little under 1,000 m. The Varasgaon dam and the hills around it act as a catchment area for the local Mose river and supplies most of Pune’s water. Thus, lawfully, no development can be allowed there. Yet, the company has already built one dam, and plans 12 more to meet the extensive requirements of Pune city.



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