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Interview: Ajit Gulabchand, the man building Lavasa, a city of 200,000, in the hills of western India

It’s not everyday you bump into someone who’s founded a city. But that’s precisely what happened to me last week in Jakarta, when I met Indian industrialist Ajit Gulabchand.

Gulabchand, director of the Hindustan Construction Company, is a man who thinks big. His vision is to build a city that would cater for India’s rapidly burgeoning population, create new jobs for them, and act as a model for similar projects. 

Speaking to Gulabchand at the New Cities Summit, I probed for more details about how his city was born, how it’s been growing up, and his hopes for its long-term future.

“India is a very young country,” he explained to me. “Every year about 15m people come of age and head to the cities for jobs. With this huge demand for creating new jobs, and to accommodate this migration, we’ve got to build new cities.”

The name of his new city is Lavasa, a somewhat un-Indian-sounding moniker devised by the global branding firm Landor. The project began in 2004 near Pune, in the old hill stations of the Western Ghats – leftovers of the British Raj – around 200 km from the pulsating urban sprawl of Mumbai.

So far, Lavasa remains a work in progress: it’s stalled along the way by various controversies, including a run-in with the previous Indian government. But Gulabchand is quick to assure me that the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, fully supports Lavasa: he’s even been to visit a few times.

Gulabchand is a firm believer in cities. In India, he points out, “the village was romanticised – but even the worst life in the city was better than the village.”

For that reason, although Gulabchand assures me “anyone can come to live there”, Lavasa is at heart it’s a project by Indians, for Indians, to improve Indian society in the long-term.

Planned cities are nothing new. There have been many experiments around the world, largely in Asia, in an attempt to cope with vastly growing populations of wanna-be urbanites.

China has produced some notable examples with its “ghost towns”, such as Ordos City, a shiny, fully-equipped yet severely under-populated place. The UK already had its planned city heyday with “garden cities”, such as the delightful Milton Keynes.

But this latter case highlights the tricky matter of city identity. In a global age where cities are competing with each other, there’s a risk that any deliberately planned city will end up feeling artificial. How can these cities develop a genuine identity that will help them attract tourists, talent and investment? Can a planned city have soul?

I put this question to Ajit Gulabchand, asking him how Lavasa planned to make itself famous for something, in the same way as Paris, Istanbul, New York or London. His answer was surprising, yet made perfect sense in a developing world context.

The location of Lavasa, south east of Mumbai. Image: Google Maps.

“First you have to create an economy, then a community. Bombay was nothing 100 years ago, but migrants made it into something. Migrants did the same for New York. Everywhere you’ll see new cities that are about migrants. Soul is something that the city develops over time.”

Lavasa is unusual for a planned city because its economy is being created from the ground up. Tourism and hospitality are key for starters, corresponding with the building of a large number of hotels.

Education will be another important strand of the planned economy. Lavasa aims to host some of the world’s most respected institutions. In fact, Gulabchand hopes the city will one day become synonymous with educational prowess, similar to Oxford or Boston, Massachusetts. “With green-field cities it’s a chicken and egg situation. In the early stages, people ask where are the hotels, and the hotels ask where are the people? This goes on until you cross a critical point, then things start to happen.”

In other words, before they can develop soul, cities need people. After crossing the aforementioned critical point, people will start to arrive and form communities – and that’s where identity can begin to emerge organically. But this is not something that happens overnight.

The mission for Lavasa is clear: to create a real city where young Indians can find jobs and experience a better lifestyle than in the country’s current overcrowded metropolises.

“I want it to become a place that people want to visit and to work in, that offers a modern lifestyle for the young population of India. I want it to be distinctly more livable than a good part of India,” Gulabchand said.

He also hopes Lavasa will become a model for an urbanised future, perhaps outside India too. “In Asia and Africa, 2.5bn people will migrate to cities over the next 40 years. The world has never seen anything like this. We have to be prepared.”
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