Lavasa exposed

By its looks, the place could be mistaken for Portofino, a fishing village-cum-resort in Italy—multi-coloured buildings crowd a waterfront and cafes flank a cobbled promenade. But the under-construction town is just an hour’s drive from Pune in Maharashtra and is independent India’s first hill city—Lavasa.

Planned on the principles of new urbanism where shops, homes, workplace and recreational facilities are within walking distance of each other, Lavasa is touted as a place that would offer quality life to its projected 300,000 residents and attract tourists. What the postcard images of the hill city hide is that its promoters, Lavasa Corporation Limited, bent rules, overlooked regulations and ignored environmental statutes while building it. This has jeopardised the ecology of the Sahyadri hills where Lavasa is located. The resultant landslides could pose a risk for Lavasa, too.

A report by Kumar sambhav Shrivastava and Arnab Pratim Dutta

By Arnab Pratim Dutta, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Friday 15 April 2011

Lavasa exposed


Lavasa is a destination for the well-heeled, upwardly mobile, aspiring for quality life. The streets bear names like Thicket and Celosia (an ornamental plant); the village that the town replaces—Dasve—has become the Dasve boulevard. The town centre boasts a town hall that does not resemble any municipal office but a corporate office, headed by an American designated town manager. Numerous buildings are at various stages of completion in about 700 hectares (ha). If completed, Lavasa will occupy about 5,000 hectares along the edges of seven hills in the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats. Its unique selling point is its waterfront, provided by the backwaters of Warasgaon dam on the River Mose.

Ministry softens stand

Construction work at Lavasa was on full swing till November 25 last year when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) intervened and issued a stop-work order and notice to Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL), mostly owned by construction major Hindustan Construction Company. Reason: the company had failed to obtain environmental clearance from the Union ministry. It had proceeded on the basis of a clearance from Maharashtra’s environment department.

In March first week, the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for new infrastructure projects and Coastal Regulation Zone said that planning and development of the whole project should be reworked and its environmental impact assessed afresh. At the same time the ministry also recommended permission be given to complete the semi-finished buildings being built as villas and apartments. It clarified that structures that did not reach plinth level, should not be allowed. The move to regularise illegal constructions is at variance with the ministry’s findings over the past four months.

 dasve town
Dasve town’s waterfront was created by building a weir (Photo: Arnab Pratim Dutta )
An expert committee constituted by the ministry on the directions of the high court at Mumbai, comprising Central and state EAC members and MOEF officials, had visited the project site in January. The committee’s report, dated January 13, confirms the violations of environmental laws, including haphazard cutting of hills.

The ministry had stopped work and constituted the committee in response to the public interest petition moved by the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), formed by activists and NGOs, in the high court of Mumbai. Lavasa challenged the ministry’s order in the high court, saying it had taken the requisite clearances from the state and the ministry had no jurisdiction over the project. The petition named environment minister Jairam Ramesh and two ministry officials in person.

LCL later applied for post facto clearance from MoEF for the first phase of the project, on February 1; Lavasa is being developed in two phases of 2,000 ha and 3,000 ha. While seeking clearance from the ministry, the company argued it has already spent about Rs 3,000 crore on the project and investors have gained third party rights in the city. The project has brought employment and development to a neglected area, LCL said.

 stone quarrying
Stone quarrying has dried water sources of villages (Photo: Arnab Pratim Dutta )
EAC said it was ready to consider post facto clearance on certain conditions, which include a penalty for violating laws and creation of an environment restoration fund by the company. EAC observed that substantial development has already taken place in about 700 ha. “In view of this and considering all related consequences, there is no other alternative before EAC, except appraising the project post facto,” the panel said.

But activists are unhappy with EAC’s recommendations. On March 10, NAPM moved court, challenging the retrospective clearance. “There is no provision in the Environment Protection Act for post facto clearance. At the time of issuing show cause notice on November 25, MoEF had asked the company why the unauthorised structures should not be removed. They cannot legalise it now,” says Vishwambar Choudhari of NAPM.

“The Adarsh housing society in Mumbai was ordered to be demolished under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act. The same law applies to Lavasa,” adds Choudhari.

EIA notifications flouted

LCL has denied charges of violating environmental laws.

The environment department of Maharashtra gave the final clearance to LCL in March 2004 under the Maharashtra Hill Station Regulations of 1996. The company did not apply to the Centre though the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 1994 mandated clearance from MoEF for tourism-related projects between 200m and 500m of high tide line and for projects at an elevation of more than 1,000m from sea level, involving investment of over Rs 5 crore.

Since 58 ha of Lavasa city is above 1,000m height and the project cost more than Rs 5 crore, LCL ought to have applied to the Centre for clearance. Further, the mandatory public hearing and assessment of EIA report (see ‘EIA reports raise alarm’, p31) and environment management plan by EAC were bypassed.

imageThe state, in fact, misled the Centre on the applicability of EIA notification on Lavasa. In July 2005, MoEF had written to the Maharashtra environment department saying the project attracts provisions of EIA notification and asked it to ensure all clearance processes are followed. The member secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board replied that the project did not require clearance from the Centre because it was at a height below 1,000m. The state environment department’s letter to the ministry in August 2010 reiterated this stand. The letter said EIA notification of 1994 did not apply to the project as all constructions were between 640m and 900m altitude.

A senior official in the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board confirmed the ministry’s letter was ignored by the state. When the case was revisited after the MoEF stay order, the original copy of the ministry’s letter was found missing from the files of the board and the environment department. “When the letter could not be found, LCL gave us a duplicate copy,” the official said, implying the company was aware it needed environmental clearance from the Centre. But in its affidavit in the high court, the developer claimed otherwise.

The company claimed the amended EIA notification of 2004, too, did not apply to the project. The notification said “all new construction projects”, including townships and colonies meant for more than 1,000 persons or involving an investment of more than Rs 50 crore, need the Centre’s environment clearance. When this requirement was pointed out in court, LCL argued the project was not a “new project” because it had sufficiently progressed by 2004 when the notification was issued. But the documents submitted by LCL to the ministry show the company obtained the first permission for construction only in August 2007.

A letter by Pune’s assistant director of town planning, dated November 2008, has clarified that Lavasa qualified as a new construction project. The investment made by the company as on July 7, 2004, was less than 25 per cent of the cost, a condition for an industrial project to be considered a “new construction project”, requiring clearance from the Centre, the letter says.

The developer also ignored the provisions of the EIA notification of 2006, which supersedes the previous two notifications. The notification says all townships and area development projects, covering an area of over 50 ha, commenced or upgraded after September 2006, need environmental clearance from the respective state EIA authorities. Since Maharashtra’s State Environment Impact Assessment Authority was constituted by MoEF in April 2008, all new projects should have been appraised by the Centre till that time. But the developer chose to apply to the Maharashtra EIA authority in August 2009. This proposal was too late and by then the environment had been damaged, as MoEF notes in its order dated January 17.

The damage report

The site inspection of MoEF notes that the company has resorted to large scale hill-cutting to extract construction material and for making roads. This has rendered the hills barren. The Pune collector had granted LCL lease to quarry minor minerals like stones. The ministry report says “the haphazard hill cutting is expected to result in landslides, high erosion, and consequent siltation of water bodies.”

The ministry EAC, too, endorsed these findings in its meeting on February 14 and 15. “The removal of deep-rooted trees and large rocks would lead to landslides in the event of intense rainfall or cloudburst. Any such occurrence may result in total destruction of the buildings and will have potentially grave threats to buildings down slope,” read the minutes of the meeting.

Lavasa, in its submissions to the ministry, said using locally available construction material was more ecofriendly than transporting it to site. People living in the area disagree. The blasting of hillsides for quarrying stone has spoilt their water sources. “Many springs in the region have dried. We get very little water now,” says Leelabai of Mugaon village, one of the 18 villages affected by the project.

Planning norms violated

Lavasa has also flouted state rules. Its plan does not conform to the procedures in the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act of 1966, which include inviting public objections and obtaining approval from the state government. MoEF’s site inspection report notes there is no approved landscape plan, parking and circulation plan or baseline environmental information within and around the site.

The city’s master plan is essentially a layout plan for 580 ha which was approved by the Pune collector in 2006. This was revised by LCL after it was appointed Special Planning Authority (SPA) by the state government in June 2008. This bestowed LCL powers to sanction its own plans.

Once the developer acquired the powers of a planning authority, it modified the layout plans. The hill station regulations do not allow construction on steep slopes. This made LCL shift most of the development in the valley. The original hill station policy permits only two storey buildings; Lavasa structures have six storeys. This was achieved by transferring the floor space index (FSI) of the buildings that would have come up on the slopes to the buildings in the valley. “By interpreting the global (floating) FSI to their benefit, they have almost doubled the floor space in 80 per cent residential area,” says an official in the town planning directorate of Pune.

Another major planning violation is that the buildings are almost touching the water body; the state government had permitted LCL to construct at a distance of 50m from the reservoir which was reduced to 30m and then 15m. At site, the concrete pavement almost touches the reservoir. The developer allegedly reclaimed land from the reservoir bank. All this may have a negative impact on the flora and fauna of the water body, says MoEF’s site report.

The Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation, the water resource department of the state, had leased 141.15 ha to LCL to build checkdams. LCL used a portion of the leased land which was above the submergence zone to construct commercial and residential buildings.

Residential: Laws changed to allow construction on steep slopes. Height of apartment buildings increased from Ground (G)+1 to G+4, some adjacent to water body.

Commercial: Laws changed to allow mixed land use—commercial and residential—in the town centre. Height of buildings was increased from G+2 to G+5, which was illegal in the original hill station policy

Water: Check dam at the mouth of Dasve. Buildings and roads close to the water body, at 5 to 15 metre distance. Oil and sludge from vehicles and runoff could affect lake’s water quality. Land reclaimed to set up the waterfront commercial area Lavasa’s population density is likely to be 4000 persons/sq km

Hospital: No plans for disposal of bio-medical waste on-site. Biomedical waste to be transported but no studies done on its impact.

Water at Pune’s cost

The Warasgaon reservoir is integral to Lavasa’s landscape and its water needs. In an undated white paper on the township’s water use, distributed to the media, Lavasa claims water usage would not affect downstream Pune.

Eight check dams are being constructed by LCL upstream of Warasgaon dam to store water for the project. Two dams are already constructed in the water body; the remaining six are to be built in the catchment of the dam. These eight dams will store 24.67 million cubic metre (MCM) water, which is around seven per cent of the storage capacity of Warasgaon dam. MoEF fears the checkdams will reduce the flow of water in the main reservoir.

The Warasgaon dam contributes to the Khadakwasla dam which provides drinking water to Pune. LCL claims the water requirement of Lavasa is minuscule compared to the water requirement of Pune. The current requirement of water for Pune is about 325 MCM. All of this is met by Khadakwasla Dam where water from three dams, including Warasgaon, converges. Warasgaon contributes about 373.9 MCM water and Khadakwasla releases 1041 MCM for various uses, including Pune’s water supply. B G Ahuja, Pune-based former engineer with the Central government, says with the increasing population, Pune will face water crisis. “By 2021, water requirement of Pune will exceed the storage capacity of Warasgaon dam. During the summers, the Warasgaon dam reservoir dries up and Pune suffers from water crisis. From where will Lavasa get water then?” asks Ahuja.

LCL informed the ministry that Lavasa hill station is a part of the final Regional Plan for Pune Region and its water requirements are considered while permitting the development. It said the Pune Municipal Corporation will recycle the water it draws from Khadakwasla dam and reduce distribution losses to 15 per cent from current level of 40 per cent. What’s more, the supply norms for Pune may need to be reduced from 300 litres to 125-200 litres per person a day.

Lavasa acknowledges in its red herring prospectus, filed at the time of initial public offer, that water scarcity may be problem for the township. Their contract with state water resources department states that under extraordinary circumstances Lavasa has to release water from the two check dams built at Dasve and Gadle, which comprise about 27.5 per cent of Lavasa’s water supply. In April and May every year, the Warasgaon dam nearly dries up before the monsoons begin. Not just Pune, Lavasa, too, could be reeling under severe water shortage.

Lavasa spokesperson Ashwin Shetty refused to comment, saying the matter is sub judice. MoEF is, meanwhile, working out the penalty amount and the restoration fund LCL will have to pay.

See Also>> Lavasa’s journey downhill



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