Ghettos of the super-privileged: Open letter to fellow Indians

Dear Mr & Ms Citizen,

Remember the hindi films where the village police inspector trembled before the powerful zamindar who twirled his handlebar mustache and boasted, “Kanoon? Kaun sa kanoon? Yahaan ka kanoon main hoon!” In the 21st Century, corporations like Sahara Amby Valley Corporation and Lavasa Corporation are the new zamindars. Unlike mustache-twirling landlords, these corporations have a friendly image, thanks to savvy PR-handling. But make no mistake, they are feudal in nature. They bend political leaders, bureaucrats and governments to do their bidding. They go where no builder has gone before, and do what no builder has done before.

In the last decade, while you were dreaming of the perfect home built amidst beautiful lakes and forests, these companies were busy negating your Constitutional Rights, stealing your public land and cornering your precious water resources. Although the Constitution gives you the right to travel freely throughout India, outsiders who go to Amby Valley and Lavasa are virtually on a short-duration visitor’s visa. Although these cities stand on lands that the government gifted them practically free-of-cost, they are guarded like nuclear installations. Few people are even aware of where exactly Amby Valley is, and even fewer have been there. By contrast, people go around army cantonments with relative freedom!

Gated townships: Ghettos of the super-privileged

Amby Valley and Lavasa are like “gated communities” common in countries like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. They are ghettos of the super-rich and super-privileged. The growing gap between the ordinary people (earning monthly incomes in thousands and tens of thousands) and the super-rich people (earning in lakhs and crores) is creating a social phenomenon where the super-rich wish to retreat into cities created exclusively for them, motivated by fear of attacks and robberies and a desire to live in a five-star environment. They gladly sacrifice the right of self-government by letting a corporate entity own and manage the city. Question is: Do we want India to develop like Brazil and Argentina, where the poor are routinely segregated and kept out by high walls and armed security guards? (Click here to read about the drawbacks of gated communities in different countries)

Ghettos forming around water sources with looming water crisis

Amby Valley and Lavasa are not the only townships built around lakes. Another ghetto is being planned around the Mulshi dam on the Mula river near Pune. The state government, not so long ago, sanctioned 5,952 acres of land to be turned into Lavasa-like city, five kilometres from Amby Valley. The Urban Development Department issued a notification (1810/1551/pc2383/2010/ud-13) on October 21, 2010, which was published in the gazette on October 28. The notification said that the land of Saltur, Majgaon, Barpe, Bhambarde, Ekole, Gutke and Adgaon villages would be included, although the villages core (gaothan) would be excluded. Land acquisition is already happening or has happened.

Allowing ghettos around reservoirs means handing over India’s water resources to the super-privileged

In the coming decade, water scarcity is expected to reach crisis proportions, and may create civil-war like situation. At a time like this, permitting such ghettos is a mala fide act. According to our Constitution, the owner of all natural resources, including water resources, is the Union of India. Private entities can’t own lakes, rivers etc. However, Lavasa Corporation exercises ownership rights over the entire upstream area of the Warasgaon dam – one of the three sources of water-supply to Pune. Lavasa has permission to build 10 lakes (i.e. 10 check-dams) on the tributaries bringing water into Warasgaon reservoir. Each lake will take away roughly one-tenth of the 11 tmc (i.e. thousand million cubic feet) of water that Warasgaon currently supplies to Pune. The first lake of Lavasa project – Dasve lake – is complete, and it has taken 1.03 tmc.

Nestled in a cosy valley, Lavasa is consuming the water-supply of Pune, and discharging sewage into the same valley. In the dry seasons, maybe the sewage is contained in tanks and prevented from the reservoir, but please think: What happens in the monsoons? Bear in mind that the standards and equipment for handling sewage are self-determined and self-monitored by Lavasa Corporation. There is no external regulatory mechanism.

Citizens of Pune, were you consulted before Maharashtra government took the decision to allow this ghetto around your water supply? Did they invite your objections before taking this decision affecting you? If not, why are you quiet? With only a couple of pages of blanket permissions and “temporary NOCs”, the Congress & NCP state government gave Lavasa Corporation the right to develop about 25,000 acres around Pune’s water-supply reservoir. It practically gifted 348 acres of prime land in the catchment area on a 30-year lease, at a paltry rent of about Rs 2.7 lakh per annum.

Plus, there is a massive environmental damage to these valleys and the forests. Activists of NAPM (National Alliance for People’s Movements) and Anna Hazare have raised strenuous objections on the basis of environmental damage.

Over the last decade, Lavasa Corporation, by fair means and foul, quietly acquired farmers’ land, including adivasi land, by the “creeping acquisition” method, while the state government looked the other way and twiddled its thumbs. NCP Chief Sharad Pawar, as well as Ajit Pawar (nephew) and Supriya Sule (daughter) were hands-on in this process of land acquisition and getting permissions.

Law and order issues hushed up

On 10 December 2010, an MNC executive who was attending a conference at Amby Valley was raped in her room. Her complaint was registered by Paud Police Station in Pune, 40-50 km away. Why? Are there no local police stations at Lonavla or Khandala, much closer to Amby Valley? Sahara Amby Valley, a subsidiary of Sahara India Group, issued a statement to the media: “Prima facie it appears their internal matter where an employee of a private company is alleged to have been physically assaulted during their corporate conference. It was reported that a formal complaint was registered with CEO Amby Valley, Vivek Kumar.” Heh? Since when did such corporations start taking criminal complaints and issuing statements? Do you recall any hotel CEO doing something similar? Well, this just goes to show how entities like Sahara and Lavasa are blurring the lines between being state players and private players.

Until a few days back, I felt that Lavasa township was not something I needed to worry about. I thought it was just an issue involving some forest-land, a little bit of environmental degradation and a few adivasi farmers being exploited. “So what?” I thought, “Why should I bother? Let others fight on this issue.” But now I realize that much more is at stake. The basic structure of our country’s governance is being altered. Despite their tall claims of about Lavasa being a city for all socio-economic classes, it is clearly intended for widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is a form of apartheid, and in fact, a negation of our Constitution. The Constitution envisages cities and villages governed by elected representatives; it does not envisage gated townships run by companies. If we allow this to continue, we will soon see large private enclaves carved out of our nation, where even police, army and government officials will have to seek permission to enter – a full-fledged state-within-state.

Experts worldwide see gated townships as a negation of urban values, polarizing society, breeding fear and discrimination. Such townships are a form of apartheid, and worse, naxalism – where a combination of money-power, influence, outright corruption and legal wizardry are used for seceding from the nation.

Mr and Ms Citizen, let us nip this aberration in the bud.

Krishnaraj Rao

(Krishnaraj Rao is an RTI activist. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Canary Trap)

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