It's a long journey to Lavasa from Mumbai, and at several points along the way you're quite convinced you're lost. When the Mose Valley with its sweep of undulating hillside finally emerges ahead of you, you begin to think you'd be quite happy to be lost here.
As little as six years from now, a sprawling township will spread across the same valley. Hindustan Construction Corporation (HCC) -- that has a 60 per cent stake holding in the Lavasa project with the LM Thapar group, Venkateshwara Hatcheries and private investors for company -- believes that by then there will be 100,000 primary inhabitants and a floating population of a million. Their vision is of a self-sufficient hill town. The likeness, if all goes to plan, will be to Davos.
Ajit Gulabchand, chairman HCC, however reiterates that this isn't a product of his personal ambition. He says, "Six years ago the Maharashtra government announced a hill policy. Their thinking was that we could use a third hill station to take the pressure off Matheran and Mahabaleshwar."
Nearly 12,500 acres of high valley land, contracted by Lavasa, circling most of the 20-km dammed Varasgaon lake, is in the throes of massive infrastructure building. The approach highway is the first sign, leading up to a network of arterial and trunk roads.
For now, all roads lead to three hotels that are under construction, with a total room size of 560. To be managed by the Novotel, Starwood and Fortune chains, they will be the first to see completion later this year. "The idea is to create a tourist destination around Lavasa," says Nathan Andrews, COO, Lavasa. "No one wants to live in a ghost town."
"If tourism will take care of the weekend buzz, we will need commercial activity during the week too," says Gulabchand. Lavasa is soliciting interest from key non-industrial businesses, like convention centres, educational institutions, spas and medical centres.
They are deliberately not courting the IT-ITES sectors. "They're too large; Lavasa would fill up with just an Infosys," laughs Gulabchand. Pune-based Symbiosis Society has already signed on a lease for 60 acres for a higher-education facility. "We're also looking at setting up basic facilities by 2008 like a full-fledged school and hospital," adds Andrews.
But basic is no longer enough. An 18-hole golf course is being laid out, a club house planned and, eventually, shopping centres. Not entirely different from living in a city perhaps? "Lavasa will have an urban quality, but is not a city," corrects Gulabchand.
"It's called new urbanism," he continues, "all commercial activity is planned densely around the town centre and as you go up the hill, development gets sparse. That concentrates traffic only around the town centre."
But can any of this compensate for connectivity? "Today, Lavasa is 40 km from Pune and 30 km from the IT Park at Hinjewadi. Ten years from now, it'll probably be a lot closer," says Andrews.
Until then, one assumes, the majority of primary residents will be those absorbed in Lavasa's planned independent economy.
Gulabchand does, however, believe Lavasa will also find favour with self-employed professionals like architects and consultants who would prefer to live in ex-urban environments while serving the catchments of Mumbai and Pune.
But will that be enough to fill up Lavasa? It's easy to compare Lavasa to Aamby Valley, another ambitious lake city project, with similar visions of self-sufficiency.
Today, it's little more than a weekend home to a few. "The mistake they made was that they created real estate first and then footfalls later. We want to do the opposite," explains Andrews. "Also, Aamby Valley is a gated community; ours will be in the public domain."
He adds that Lavasa homes will be more affordable, entry level condominiums will begin at Rs 27 lakh (Rs 2.7 billion). That's the string of condominiums, currently under construction, that dot the lake front.
Dasve -- as Phase I has been named -- will contain these along with some villas. Damanhole, on the other hand, as yet some years away, will boast the more exclusive residences, all bordering the golf course, with vantage views of the lake.
The star attraction at Lavasa is the waterfront; all development springs around it. According to locals, however, Varasgaon lake actually all but dries up in the months leading up to the monsoon. That problem has been addressed. HCC, with their strength in infrastructure, has built a mini dam that has created a reservoir holding of 1.8 million cubic metres of water.
"Sufficient to satisfy the water needs of Dasve," indicates Andrews. Eighteen such dams and check dams will ensure year-round lake views.
Lavasa's environs are its trump card. "Seventy per cent of the available land bank will stay untouched," assures Andrews. He mentions they planted one million saplings this monsoon of species critical to the ecology.
But the pressure of population could potentially alter (and ruin) everything, including the ratio of developed to open land. "It's hard to project that far," says Gulab-chand. Adherence to the master plan will be key in retaining value. "At some point we will look at creating a planning authority and local governance with local stakeholder participation," says Gulabchand.
For now, every new structure will be vetted for compliance standards. "Our model is Muscat where there are general architectural guidelines that govern the entire city," says Andrews. Dasve's architectural style is derived from the fashionable resort town of Portofino (Italy) and its pastel-coloured coastal residences, Damanhole will sport a Western Ghat vernacular style.
"I am not going to pretend this will be an eco-township with wind farms and solar panelling, but we will err on the side of eco," says Gulabchand. Industry tattle suggests Lavasa's strategic political alliances gained them fast-track clearances, environmental and otherwise. Andrews laughs it off.
Just outside Lavasa, beside a gushing stream, an elderly villager stops to chat. She worries Lavasa will continue to acquire irrigated land on the periphery as well, forcing farmers to move further back.
The trajectory of development never sits equally well on both sides. (Farmer protests against acquisition of irrigated farm land have often erupted in the region, dotted with dam reservoirs, as recently seen in the case of expansion of the Hinjewadi IT Park into the Mulshi Valley.)
For HCC, the RoIs on Lavasa could mean a final project value of Rs 20,000 crore (Rs 200 billion) against a cost of Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000 crore (Rs billion). "I will make sure the village communities also benefit from Lavasa," says Gulabchand, "When Medha Patkar comes calling, I hope they will stand by me."