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LAVASA: The Controversy

Pune, once a quiet city, where people could stroll quietly along tree-lined avenues and where nobody even needed a fan in summer, has exploded.

Landing there provides a startling view of how apartment complexes have mushroomed till the end of the horizon on all sides. So much concrete and deforestation have also provoked a warming effect and AC’s are even functioning in winter, thereby increasing power consumption and load shedding. So much for the city of Shivaji Maharaj!

After a harrowing week working in Pune, my wife and I decided to take a break away from the city. But where to go? We had already seen the overcrowding at Lonavala, where hotels and guesthouses have erupted like mushrooms after monsoon, blotting the landscape.

Remained Lavasa, though we were aware that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had once issued a stop-work notice to the multi-crore project, citing lack of clearances & environmental degradation. We had also read Medha Patkar’s numerous appeals on the issue and how the project was displacing tribals. But as the drive from Pune was short, we decided to give it a try.

Entering Lavasa was a pleasant surprise: we stumbled upon a beautiful 60 Kms lake in a picturesque valley surrounded by 7 hills and 18.000 acres of forested land, at nearly 3000 feet above the plains; we drove on wide tarred roads, which even had drains on both sides, a rarity in India; we found quiet guest houses at reasonable prices, amidst exquisite bed of flowers – and above all : silence, a priced commodity in this country. Never before, had we seen in India a new city so well planned and designed, with so many green spaces.

What was the controversy then? It seemed, it all started with Medha Patkar who accused the Lavasa Corporation of “violating all environmental norms by digging up hills, uprooting trees and pulling down the ‘Nasa’ point, which was over the prohibited 1,000 m. height. Furthermore, (she said) the Lavasa Corporation is secretly planning to construct 10 dams inside a river valley. If this is the face of modern Indian cities, like what Lavasa claims, then I am extremely sorry to say that India is in grave danger. We could lose the entire Western Ghats to many more similar projects like the Lavasa”. Wow!

But during our visit here, we learnt that the master plan for Lavasa was prepared by one of the largest town-planning firms in the world: Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, from St. Louis, USA, using the principles of new urbanism, which means that development should be dense at the centre of the valley and sparse as it moves up towards the hills, so as to minimize the ecological footprint. Thus, around 80% of the Lavasa built up area is concentrated along the town-centre of the phase 1 of development, which is called Dasve, and the balance 20% of development is spread across the hills consisting mainly of villas. We were also told that to date nearly one million tree saplings and equal no of shrub & stump, have been planted at Dasve. The target is to plant 2-3 million trees in the entire valley to enrich its biodiversity.

Thus, in the end, even the 11-member Central team from the Ministry of Environment and Forests deputed to look into violations in the project, said that “Prima facie there does not seem to be a large-scale destruction of forest”. The chairman of the committee, Naresh Dayal, also told reporters “That there is no specific evidence of reduction in water supply to Pune, as declared by Mrs Patkar”.

Bu this did not deter Medha Patkar, who recently vowed to continue her fight against the hill city project and said the Jana Andolan committee formed to oppose the project would persist with its legal battle in the Bombay High Court against it.

Who is Medha Patkar? She often seemed to have blocked projects which were actually beneficial to India, such as the Narmada dam, which today has made out of Gujarat the greenest state of India, benefiting millions of farmers, the very people Medha says she is defending.

Recently some facts came out, which shed a different light on Mrs Patkar. In a letter written a few years ago, Dr Urmilaben Patel, member of the Congress Working Committee, wrote to Shri Pranab Mukherjee, who was then the Minister for External Affairs: “You are kindly aware, that Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) headed by Medha Patkar is actively involved in opposing all hydro projects in India… I have recently received material which I find quite disturbing.. I specifically draw your attention into the message of Ms. Patkar using the words of “pressurizing the UPA government”, and “honouring” a Supreme Court Judge for a favourable verdict, as is explicit in the emails. It seems it is a deliberate act on the part of Ms Patkar to defame UPA Govt. I humbly suggest that Govt, should immediately enquire how Medha Patkar managed favourable verdict and take appropriate action against Ms. Patkar for bringing disrepute to the Govt, and to the Hon’ble Supreme Court and halting the progress of the nation. I feel this issue is of national importance and deserves your personal attention”….

Nothing ever came out of it. Yet, since then, there has emerged even more disturbing evidence of NBA’s nefarious collusion with foreign elements This is in the form of an exchange of confidential emails between Ms. Patkar and Mr. Patrick McCully, Ex. Director, International Rivers Network (IRN) based at Berkeley (United States). Now who is this Patrick McCully? He is a man who cavorts with enemies of India, particularly with Angana Chatterjee, on the board of IRN, a known India baiter, who was very close to Ghulab Nabi Fai, who has just been sentenced in the US for being an ISI spy. Angana Chatterjee is married to Richard Shapiro, Director and Associate Professor of the Graduate Anthropology Program at CIIS. Now both Shapiro and Chatterjee were regular at the ISI sponsored junkets. She was charged with being propped up by the ISI to launch an anti-India campaign. Further, her partner Richard Shapiro was denied entry to India in 2010 for what was reported to be his anti-India propaganda.

Will Medha Patkar answer these accusations and come clean on her real reasons for targeting Lavasa, one of the greenest and most environmental cities in India?

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