India’s brave new urban world

Ajit Gulabchand, the Chairman and Managing Director of the Hindustan Construction Co, and UNISDR focal point for business partnerships, Kiki Lawal, promoting resilient cities.
By Denis McClean

LAVASA, 12 May 2014 - Ajit Gulabchand, the Chairman and Managing Director of the Hindustan Construction Co., is firm in his intention to develop India’s first new hill city since the days of the British Raj.

After construction work on Lavasa was put on hold for the last three years due to litigation, it is now set to resume at full tilt after this year’s monsoon season. Some $400 million has already been invested in his hilltop urban settlement.

A man full of energy and optimism, Mr Gulabchand smiles and says: “When we were stopped on a technicality three years ago we went to court and we filed a case supported by all 18 villages existing in our area. Public interest litigation is a big thing in India, everybody has an issue and it goes on for years. This is part and parcel of the raucous democracy we have.”

It is estimated that 400 million people will move from the Indian countryside to cities over the next 35 years and this will require some 500 new urban settlements, one of the greatest building sprees in the history of humankind, rivalled only perhaps by modern China.

Mr. Gubalchand’s vision of a hill city, Lavasa, in the cool fragrant air of the Sahyadri Hills, in Maharashtra State, is already well on the way to realisation and could become a model and inspiration for future planned urban development in India. It will cater for 300,000 people with facilities for about two million tourists every year and an employment base of 97,000.

Dasve is the first in a series of five towns which will comprise Lavasa. Dasve already hosts a population of 6,000 people and its world class health facilities including the Apollo Hospital, are attracting many visitors. It is being actively promoted as an education hub. The Hotel School of Lausanne, Switzerland, had its first graduates there this year. Strategic partnerships are in place with several other private companies.

He explains: “We had two basic ideas and challenges. The Sahyadri Hills had become very denuded due to the building of dams and the creation of four or five man-made lakes. Slash and burn farming also did a lot of damage to the vegetation. We were asked by the State to consider a project in the area. The challenge was to come up with a model that was economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. We did not want to build something where people could not afford to live.”

Following the principles of bio-mimicry, the area has been mapped meticulously and a huge effort has been made to restore it to its natural state without introducing alien plant or tree species. To date, 800,000 trees, shrubs and plants have been introduced. The quality of the soil has been improved by adding bio-nutrients.

One of the first activities undertaken was to sensitise local villagers to the harmful effects of slash and burn agriculture. Instead they were involved in the planting of indigenous species across the barren hillsides with outstanding results for the environment.

The Lavasa region receives heavy rainfall so integrated rainwater management is practiced using techniques such as Continuous Contour Trenching and Water Absorbing Trenching to prevent soil erosion and facilitate rainwater harvesting.

The planning model is one which allows for building on just 35% of the land area, and 80% of the population will live on 20% of the area allowing for a dense, efficiently-run town centre and the creation of a pedestrian inner city where people feel secure. It’s a low impact model of development which respects the topography of the area including the ravines, thickets and a “Sacred Grove.”

Mr. Gubalchand says: “In this way the stress on the infrastructure is less and it is easier to protect from an environmental and disaster point of view. It's called a transaction model of town planning. Our city will be home to 300,000 people from across the socio-economic spectrum. There will be big villas and wonderful apartments by the lakeside and social housing and rental homes for people who will work there.”

Once construction resumes later this year, the project team will focus on the issue of governance. Ideally, Mr. Gubalchand wants a model of governance framed around a public-private partnership.

“We are trying to create a model of governance, a private public sector partnership. We will begin this dialogue this year. How will the city managers engage with the private sector to attract appropriate investment and what functions should remain in the hands of state such as policing and traffic management. This model has to evolve. India needs foresight and good planning to cope with the coming wave of urbanization. Lavasa can help guide that effort.”

Lavasa may also become the first-ever city started from scratch in the 21st century to join UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign. Watch this space!
VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018 VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018.
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