The advertisements for Lavasa, a utopian planned city not far from Pune, are slick and impressive. So is the so-called “experience zone,” what they call the information center in the new city. Even the public loo there is clean and smells fresh.
Maybe that’s because, like the “first e-governed hill city in India” itself, there’s nobody really using it.
I take it back. We were in Lavasa, along with a crowd of several hundred or more, on a recent Saturday for three reasons: 1) It’s located in the hills, and any trip through the hills during monsoon season is a pleasure due to the lush landscape, cascading waterfalls and emerald green countryside that will, I’m told, turn to brown within a month or so after the rains diminish within the next few days or weeks; 2) We were curious, like many of the other visitors I suspect, to see what a city “being built on the principles of New Urbanism, and in close harmony with nature” looks like and; 3) We were invited by new friends who are fun and interesting—what could be better than that?
The drive up was spectacular. When I first came to India, I didn’t realize how special this time of year is for the people who live here, being one who takes lush green rainforests for granted (I was born and raised in Juneau, in Southeast Alaska, and it’s been known to rain a wee bit in the Tongass National Forest).
The monsoon was delayed when we first arrived in India in late June; the Sahyadri Hills were brown and dusty. The monsoon, which began in earnest in mid-July, transforms the landscape into brilliant shades of green. On the 1 ½ hour drive to Lavasa, friend Ruchi Jaggi kept pointing out the waterfalls to her daughter Rhea and our daughter Rachel sitting with me in the backseat. As Ruchi’s husband Atul maneuvered the Ford Tempo through the winding roads, we even saw locals stop to take photos of themselves in front of the waterfalls, some even standing underneath them as the water poured upon their heads.
Sometimes I’m slow to understand the significance of things. Listening to Ruchi’s appreciative comments about the waterfalls and watching the locals revel in the water, it finally dawned on me: this is really special. In a few short weeks, this lovely green won’t be here and the waterfalls will vanish.
We passed an impressive dam with a humble community of shanties not too far below its leaking bulk. Many locals were selling roasted corn alongside the roadways. They built small fires, held the corn over the fire with their hands and then rubbed them with lime and chilli powder. Watching the leaks spurt out of the sides of the dam, I couldn’t help but wonder …. Is it safe for people to live so closely in its path?
The road into Lavasa has signage, lampposts, nice sidewalks and benches. Dasve, as it’s called, is the first out of a dozen waterfront communities imagined for Lavasa. The lake was artificially created by building dams. So far, Dasve is the only town in which construction has begun. And then it was halted.
I don’t represent to you that I know all the ins and outs of this project. But the locals say it has stalled for financial or legal reasons, perhaps both. There are concerns about the constructed city’s impact on the local ecology and farmers in the area.
The airbrushed, 75-page “Lavasa City Guide” shows a town that it hopes to be. While part of it has indeed been built and even looks nice, other parts are brick skeletons—a vision not yet realized. Street signs point to structures and amenities not yet there.
According to its marketing and advertising materials, Lavasa is a city “of artists and accountants, teachers and doctors, dreamers and doers, and pioneers and philosophers. A city where life is all that it can be.” Full-page advertisements in local newspapers show a glittering Dasve waterfront with clip-out coupons for things like taking a boat ride during your lunch hour on a Monday or balancing work and life perfectly.
Brian visited Lavasa with a group of students and another professor from Symbiosis International University. The student journalists interviewed a representative of the company leading the planned city’s emergence, HCC Group Enterprise. Company people told the students all units either already built or under construction were all paid for. There are hotels, apartments, bungalows—apparently all snatched up.
That may be. But those in our group agreed Lavasa had a somewhat eerie feel. There were plenty of visitors, but they were like us—curious and temporary. I wondered what it would feel like to remain at Lavasa overnight.
I’ll say this about Lavasa—we ate well that afternoon. We dined at a Chinese restaurant called the Oriental Octopus. I was skeptical when we entered—can we really get good Chinese food way out here? Our lunch, I’m happy to report, was actually delicious. The constant drizzle of the monsoon had me a bit chilled, but a steaming pot of jasmine tea soon warmed me up. I ordered crunchy fried spinach with pine nuts and a chicken dish.
There were about a half-dozen other restaurants too, as well as vendors selling things like chocolate covered marshmallows—an instant hit with the children in our group. Cups of chai, a visit to a bakery—we didn’t go hungry.
The best part was the company. Our Indian friends were Ruchi, Atul and Rhea; Prasanna and Abhay; Sameer and Radhika, cute little Meera and Divij. We laughed that it seemed like whenever we stepped outside our cars or outside of a building, the skies would open up and pour down upon us. We took pictures of each other, enjoyed the scenery and just were happy to be out of the city for the day.
Two strangers came up to me and either Rory or Robin and indicated they’d like their photo taken with us. This actually happens quite a bit when we go out, due to our fair skin, our Indian friends tell us. The people always seem so friendly about it that I’m happy to oblige. I wonder about the obsession with fair skin, when all we try to do is get darker with suntans! We always want what we don’t have, I suppose.
In five years, what will the landscape behind those photos of us and complete strangers look like? Will Lavasa-the-vision be closer to Lavasa-the- reality? Will people live there, and truly be able to bike or walk to work? Will it feel more like a community, without the ghost-town whiff that’s present now?
I wish the developers and investors the best of luck. Time will tell.