Maharashtra government granted permission for the multi-crore project, citing ‘unknown provisions' of the law

Well before the Adarsh cooperative housing society scam became national news, activists and locals have been protesting against the irregularities in the Lavasa project near Pune.

As the road turns from Chandni Chowk to Pirangut, on the outskirts of Pune, a sign reads ‘Lavasa: 45 km.' Through its numerous advertisements and publicity events, Lavasa has almost become a household name in Pune, emblematic of luxury.

A hill station city, as it is being promoted, the 25,000-acre township is unique in its concept. Nestled in the Western Ghats full of tropical vegetation, it is located at one of the world's highest rainfall points. This is exactly why the project has been under the scrutiny of social activists since its inception in 2001.

The protest against the environmental damage caused by the project has culminated in a public interest litigation petition in the Bombay High Court against the State government and Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL). Suniti S.R. of the Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People's Movement is one of the petitioners. The petition, filed by advocate Y.P. Singh, states that the government has given permission for the construction of Lavasa, citing ‘unknown provisions' of the law.

The project has provoked social activist Anna Hazare to write a letter recently to the Chief Minister. The Hindu has a copy of it. Mr. Hazare has pointed out several anomalies. He writes: “The new tourism act of the government of Maharashtra was introduced in 1996. But LCL gave the proposal in 2001 when the Congress-NCP government came to power. Why did LCL have to wait for this? Added to that, there were no tenders floated for the project. The proposal by LCL [then Lakecity Corporation] was approved immediately. The whole situation raises a lot of unanswered questions.”

At the end of his letter, Mr. Hazare states that as he is troubled by the blatant disrespect for the Constitution and the laws, he will be on a ‘Maun Andolan' (silent movement) from November 5. He will also return his Padmabhushan to the President on November 11. On December 1, he will start a hunger satyagraha at Alandi, where the samadhi of Maharashtra's saint Dyaneshwar is located.

In fact, the State government is not even authorised to give permission for large-scale projects like Lavasa, activists say. Environment clearance on several grounds, as stipulated under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 1994, is necessary. However, LCL has taken an environment clearance under unknown provisions of the law from the Environment Department of the Maharashtra government, the petition says.

It is mandatory for all projects located at a height above 1,000 metres to have the clearance and, as the petition points out, the entrance gate of Lavasa itself is sited at an altitude of 1,052 metres. The road passing through the forests is yet another reason, say the activists. Adding to these, 11 dams have been built along the Warasgaon reservoir, the catchments of which will supply water to the project. This also requires the Centre's approval, the petition argues.

Under the July 7, 2004 amendment to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 1994, any project for more than 1,000 persons and with an investment of over Rs. 50 crore requires the clearance. As on that day, Lavasa construction did not reach the plinth level, the clearance was mandatory, the petition says.

As a recent visit to Lavasa revealed, the first of its cities, ‘Dasve,' is nearing completion, with construction on 2,000 hectares, complete with four hotels, a town centre, apartments and luxury villas and an adventure sports club, among other amenities. Officials claim all the people displaced by the project have been given adequate compensation, houses and a job per family.

No coercion

In a guided tour of the city, the Lavasa media manager was quick to point out that there was no coercive removal of people from their land. Pointing to a small restaurant, which did not fit in with the architecture of the rest of the ‘city,' he said that since the restaurant owner had his share of land, he was free to construct anything.

As for the compensation to landowners, future expansion plans and environmental concerns, The Hindu was told that “since LCL has applied for the second round of IPO for the second city, Mugaon, the Securities and Exchange Board of India guidelines will have to be followed, and the answers to the questions will have to come through the SEBI.”

Another issue Ms. Suniti and Dr. Vishwambar Choudhari of the Oasis Environmental Foundation raised is that Lavasa has been promoted as a tourism initiative. But as another document by the Maharashtra government (dated April 12, 2004) states, LCL has been granted permission for a ‘stone-crushing' unit under the orange category of small-scale industries. “Since when did medium polluting industries like this become a part of a tourism project? Plus, where will the stones for this come from? Obviously, the hills will be cut. Isn't this an environmental violation,” Dr. Choudhari asks.

Some time ago, after media reports on the violation of rules, LCL took out a full-page advertisement in some major national dailies. It sought to clarify and justify the progress of Lavasa till date. The advertisement stated that the allegation made by activists that politicians were involved in LCL was not true. It claimed that LCL was a subsidiary of Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) that held 64.99 per cent stakes, while the Avantha Group held 16.25 per cent, Venkateshwara Hatcheries 12.79 per cent and Vinay Maniar 5.95 per cent.

According to Ms. Suniti of the National Alliance of People's Movement, they have proof of Union Minister and Nationalist Congress president Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule and son-in-law Sadanand Sule having held a 21.97 per cent stake in LCC from 2002 to 2004. “All the necessary permission from the government for Lavasa was received in this period. After that, both of them quietly sold off their stakes. So the argument that no politicians are involved is not valid,” she said.

The advertisement also refuted allegations that Pune's water was being diverted to Lavasa. Instead, it blamed Pune for doing “next to nil [in] recycling of water.” Prayas, a non-governmental organisation, reckons that while LCL's claims that Lavasa will need only 35 MLD (million litres a day) of water, it has been allotted 1 TMC from the Warasgaon reservoir, which is 10 per cent of Pune's needs.

According to the petition, on September 4, 2005, the Ministry of Environment and Forests wrote to say Lavasa was being built without the mandatory environmental clearance needed under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification. Despite such instructions, the State authorities took no action, the petition alleges.

The petition wants the Lavasa corporation asked to restore the environment and compensate the villagers for the losses they suffered owing to the environmental damage.

It also demands that all the permission granted for the project be revoked and the entire area planted with tropical vegetation. Till that happens and the State government is brought to book, Lavasa city will continue to awe Puneites.