We walk along a shady promenade along a quietly flowing river, with pretty bridges spanning it on one side, and colourful cafes on the other. People lounge on street-side tables and chairs or rest on the benches strewn around – of course, with expensive coffee in their hands. At the end of the commercial section of the promenade, a crowd gathers for a flea market and impromptu music, and beyond that, the promenade skips around very expensive lakeside apartments. Quintessential tiny European town? No. Welcome to Dasve in Lavasa, India’s first planned hill station.
I started off wary; although I can’t put a finger on why, it was probably because I had no idea what to expect from a “planned” Indian city – a phrase that had always been an oxymoron. I guess my biggest question was “why?!”. Why build a city from scratch? What happens once it is built? Who else apart from café owners and rich retirees will want to come and live here – there’s no “work”place to go to each morning, to earn a living for lay people like us!
It took me tremendous effort to flex my brain muscles to think along the timelines of such a gargantuan project of building a city. It will probably remain a touristy hill station with a promenade like nowhere else in India during my lifetime, but just imagine the scene fifty years down the line – companies that you and I currently work at have set up operations, their employees live in these funky apartments that line the river or in fancy villas uphill, a lot of them walk to work every day or take the green shuttle to the next town over the hill, the disabled can wheel themselves on and off the footpaths, they walk their dogs on the promenade at night and clean up after them, and on Saturdays they either go hiking or biking in the hills or get their adrenaline pumping with the water sports down the road or attend concerts at the huge convention center. Traffic snarls, pollution, dust and daily battles with inefficiency are a thing of the past. Wouldn’t that be awesome?! It literally takes a village to make this happen, and what I keep coming back to is mindsets. Do we Indians have it in us to come together for this vision?
The five towns in Lavasa were planned by to solve a specific problem staring at this country in the face – the rapid rate of urbanization. Thousands are expected to migrate to cities (the exodus has begun), which are already a non-planned chaotic mess. The population of these five towns combined is expected to be capped at 3 lakhs, there is no space planned for more. Manufacturing industries are a strict no-no, which points to minimal pollution.
But I ask myself, what kind of clientele does Lavasa expect? Currently, those plush with foreign money or foreigners own these pretty apartments and villas. I can only guess that it will be the city dwellers who will mass migrate to faraway towns like this, making space for villagers moving into cities. What happens to the horrendously expensive cities then? The rates won’t drop, so who can afford what?! Or maybe they will?! And even in Lavasa, this fancy citizenry will need their cooks and drivers and maids – what happens to living and leisure to cater to this strata? Has that been planned, or will it be left to grow organically? In the latter case, what’s the use of so much planning? And Lavasa’s five cities will hold 3 lakh urban migrants, which is a drop in the ocean to solve the urban migration problem, so are there more planned cities in the pipeline? Or do they not want to solve this problem at all but just provide a cool alternate city to those who can afford it? I don’t have enough knowledge about how these economic dynamics work but I have so many questions that I think I’m going to burst; so I’m coming up with my own whacky theories as I ponder Lavasa.
To the private company that looked this far ahead and bet on something so new, kudos. And for battling the Indian government to get this project off the ground and to a promising start, an extra ten thousand kudos!