Friday, 17 October 2014

Lavasa: corporate dream, ghost town, or both?

One of the utopian type advertising posters in Lavasa, branding courtesy of Landor from what I read.
While in India, I had an unexpected and pretty amazing opportunity to visit a city called Lavasa, situated in the Western Ghats, between Mumbai and Pune, though technically closer to Pune. I was staying with friends in Pune and friends of theirs involved with the local branch of the British Business Group were visiting Lavasa in preparation for the Christmas Gala event they were organising in the city's conference centre.

My friends in Pune had mentioned to me a new city on the way from Mumbai airport after I’d landed but I hadn’t really understood what they meant at the time. I hadn’t done any research and didn’t have any particular expectations. I was just told it was a brand new city project, initiated by an extremely wealthy building and property company, though apparently almost devoid of inhabitants. 

 We drove to the Ghats, a chain of old mountains reduced to almost hills running all along the Southwestern coast of India, several quite famous and popular British colonial hill stations are around there. The weather, quite clear in Pune, started clouding over as soon we arrived in the Ghats, and as we drove up in altitude we were quickly and completely in the clouds and mist. After a little over two hours of fast driving (double the speed most Indians drive at), nothing was around but a single quite recently built windy road. We finally arrived to a large portal or gate built over the road with a guardian in the front. It was raining and grey, I didn’t envy the guy's job on that day. We waited for some other people to meet us just beyond the gate and I took advantage of a lull in the rain to go to a panorama point, indicated as such by a handy sign though interestingly there wasn’t any parking space for a car to stop nearby.

The city view in the valley from the entrance, I thought it was a just a bad day until I was told half the year was like this.
I could barely see the town at the bottom of the valley for the clouds and mist, built around a lake. They had also built chalets a little higher from the lake on the hill sides. A few other buildings seemed to be still in construction. I was told people visited for the weekend like they did the other Hill Stations, though was told this was  also meant to be a stand alone city and they intended to attract education institutions and then students, and then people to purchase all these properties. I asked how students who don’t typically have that much cash would travel to this empty ghost town given there wasn’t any public transport. It was definitely far from the train lines, and a bus would take hours from the nearest large city.
The mostly empty houses along the lake
And more houses and structures being built everywhere.
 We drove down to the conference and events centre where I found out Accor Hotels was managing this whole venture, their logo was around the deserted exhibition centre, and their brands were present elsewhere, such as the Hotel Mercure we had lunch at.

The whole place was being drenched in downpours every few minutes while we were there. One of the employees told us this particular valley received the highest rainfall of India and it rained for 5-6 months non stop every year, often more than that. 

The exhibition centre looked both brand new and overused. I supposed the wear and tear of the rain might be to blame for the sorry state of the chairs in the conference rooms.

I asked how many people actually lived in the hundreds of apartments I could see along the lake, and was told it was perhaps two hundred. I spotted less than a dozen occupied apartments from clothes drying, furniture, or curtains. I still suspect most of those are the builders who I could see working on new structures nearby. A parking lot and more apartments, apparently.

Close up on the Lavasa International Conference Centre.
Before leaving, we went to the visitor’s centre where we admired posters touting Lavasa as the free eco city of the future. Nothing looked particularly eco or sustainable as far as I could see. They gave us a video presentation of the plans for the whole valley, we were told this was the first of seven future towns in the complex of Lavasa through a well crafted 3D animation flying over the valley, each new town would be specialised in a branch of industry, and that this was the first city in India entirely created, developed, and managed by a corporation.

I felt we were all listening to a talk about the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes.

As we left under more rain and grey, I couldn’t help but think of several blog posts I’d seen with photos of similar ghost towns in China, and that in the real world, building it doesn’t mean they’ll come - at all. 

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