Women study computer science in Bengaluru. Photograph: Tom Bible/Alamy
A1,000-mile stretch of high hills blanketed in forests near India‘s west coast is one of the most remote places in the world. There are at least 5,000 types of flower. Elephants, snakes, tigers, and cave bats all live here, secluded from the rest of India. Zoologists who have occasionally ventured into the Ghats have found new species by the handful. The mountainous territory is inhospitable. The second I cross into it, civilisation disappears. I can’t get a mobile phone signal.
Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World by Angela Saini
And yet here in the middle of the Western Ghats, in what can reasonably be called nowhere, I descend into a steep valley and find myself in what will soon become one of the most advanced cities on earth.
I first read about Lavasa in an advertisement in an inflight magazine, and became intrigued by what the advert claimed will be a metropolis governed mainly by machines. A central bank computers will control everything here from household security to the transport network. It’s a half-billion dollar project to build, from scratch, an urban dream in the middle of the mountains.
Standing on the promenade in the heart of Lavasa, I have a vantage point across the entire site. Ten years ago there was nothing here but a few tribal villagers living in low thatched huts. They grow food by terracing the slopes and waiting for the monsoon rains to feed their rice and vegetables. And now they can be found on the outskirts, watching this city rise from the valley, like a girl gazing at her mother while she puts on her makeup.
If it looks surreal to me, it must look bizarre to the villagers. There are tall, thin, multicoloured apartment blocks in long terraces; they appear to have been lifted brick by brick from the Italian streets of Portofino. The opulent chalets above me, nestled inside the forests, could be from Bavaria. In the brochure, the Lavasa Corporation has used pictures of Oxford to illustrate how picturesque Lavasa will look when it’s finished. It’s as if the developers have picked the most beautiful parts of Europe and transplanted them here.
Right now, though, it’s a ghost town. Work has halted while the Indian authorities debate environmental issues surrounding the development, though few seriously doubt that the project will reach completion. The city is eerily silent. There’s a state-of-the-art hospital, which looks deserted. Electricity pylons stretch from here to the horizon, standing tall in the sun like marching aliens. The only building that could be described as remotely busy is the canary-coloured town hall where men in suits and sleeveless yellow safety jackets stand outside for a smoke, but by any normal standards it’s very quiet. This is the opposite of an Indian city.
“Indian cities have not distinguished themselves in the annals of urban management in terms of how well run they are,” says Scot Wrighton, the American city manager for Lavasa, whose small office is upstairs inside the town hall. He’s responsible for running the city until it receives its first residents and elects a real mayor. Although this is an Indian project, the developers scoured the world for an expert who knew how to run towns with western efficiency and cutting-edge technology. Wrighton, who has previously managed a few midwestern cities, was their choice.
I imagine that travelling from the American midwest to the Western Ghats must have been a culture shock for him. Many Indian cities are unplanned and riddled with slums. Affluent districts have security guards on constant watch or locked gates at least. Since 24-hour access to any kind of amenity, from water to electricity, is rarely guaranteed, people who can afford it have their own electricity generators and water pumps.
So the challenge for Lavasa’s planners is to create a city that doesn’t suffer from these problems. The way they hope to do it is by wherever possible replacing human bureaucrats with machines.
Miles from the reach of even the police and the emergency services, Lavasa is, by accident or design (I can’t figure out which), forced to be self-sufficient. The chairman of the Lavasa Corporation, Ajit Gulabchand, dreams of turning this city into its own governmental entity, so it can do whatever any other Indian city is allowed to do, from providing healthcare and education to levying taxes. His ambitious promise is that Lavasa “will be a city that governs itself” using technology, leapfrogging cities in the rest of the world.
But this isn’t just an idealistic community. Lavasa is also a profitable real-estate development. Mumbai is only a few hours away. And the nearest city, Pune, is famous as an up-and-coming IT hub. In fact, the more I wander around the perfect pavements and delicate fountains in the blistering midday heat, the more I notice how hard they’re trying to attract the kind of nerdy IT workers who are working in India’s booming technology companies like Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. There’s a videogaming arcade opposite the American diner. In the next few years developers will also be building a space theme park, masterminded by the same people who created the American Space Camp in Alabama.
This may be India’s first city designed for Generation Y. It’s a geek’s paradise. And not only will the geeks live here, the geeks will rule.
“Electronic governance is really nothing more than conducting the basic transactions of government via an electronic portal,” says Scot Wrighton. This means replacing paper-based filing, official forms and bills with digital ones, and transferring every point of contact between the government and its citizens online. The philosophy behind it is that automating the government can make bureaucracy faster, easier and more transparent. (The idea itself isn’t new. About a decade ago countries around the world, but particularly in Asia, began putting these ideas into practice in earnest, using the terms e-government and Government 2.0.)
Here in Lavasa, one of the major companies responsible for installing and maintaining the technology is Wipro, one of India’s big three IT firms. The linchpin of the e-governance system is a website through which residents will be able to pay their bills, access emergency services, report any problems, make complaints and do anything else involving the government’s help. Households without computers will have a digital automation unit fitted in their homes to give them access to the site. The hardware will be replaced every four years or so, and the software will be automatically updated through the internet cloud. It’s a “slimmed-down, more efficient” infrastructure, Wrighton explains.
The Lavasa public-relations team take me to speak to the person from Wipro responsible for installing the hardware. He’s known here only by his initials, UGK. He won’t tell me what the U stands for but the GK means Gopal Krishna. “Lavasa on a proactive basis would be looking at every aspect of infrastructure in the city,” he tells me, “whether it is the streetlights, whether it is the roads, whether it is utilities. In the phase one, we would be having approximately 70km of optical fibre.”
Metre by metre, researchers are mapping the city using a geographic information system. It includes water pipes, fibre optic cables, electrical wires, transport links, and the footprint of every building. If a pipe bursts, they will know exactly where it is.
UGK continues: “You will have smart metering enabled which will allow you to capture the points of failure on a predictive basis, a preventive basis. It will also exactly pinpoint where the fault is. All this would ensure that a resident at Lavasa would experience a very quick turnaround of faulty actions and repairs around that.”
I’m impressed, but at the same time I can’t escape the feeling that I’m being given the hard sell. Indeed, from the slick brochures to the manicured gardens, it all feels like a giant sales pitch. But I guess I should have expected this. If the Lavasa Corporation doesn’t attract a critical mass of at least 100,000 residents, there simply won’t be enough teachers, doctors, lecturers, shop staff and other people to supply and use the services. It will remain a ghost town.
The PR team and the staff continue to drill me with the idea that Lavasa won’t only work here but can also be a role model for the rest of India. “We can’t just cram more people into these already overloaded cities,” says Wrighton.
“What we’re going to have to think about is how to structure that and deliver those services differently. That’s the laboratory of Lavasa. The vision of the chairman is that we can create a new governance model that can be replicated elsewhere. That’s a terribly grand and idealistic goal, OK. It really doesn’t exist anywhere else. So his idea is that we will be the laboratory, and figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”
He suggests that I check out the corporate video in the building next door. He’s in it, he tells me, half proud and half embarrassed. It’s as professional as a Hollywood movie. Over helicopter shots of the lush hills someone quotes Byron: “There is society where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less but Nature more…”
Gulabchand appears on screen in sunglasses and a sharp suit. “Four hundred million people will migrate from rural areas to the urban areas in India over the next 40 years,” he says, his thick, silvery hair fluttering as he walks past some bushes, the towering hills behind him. “This huge migration took a thousand years to happen in Europe. It will happen in India in just 40. India will have to expand its cities and towns.” The solution, Gulabchand announces, is Lavasa.
The next morning I take a tour of the entire 25,000-acre site. Most is empty land, with only the odd bulldozer lazily nuzzling the dirt. Reaching the edges, where the black Tarmac gives way to dirt roads, we stray into tribal territory. The number of people living in Lavasa, I am told, will be capped at 300,000 to make sure that services aren’t overwhelmed. The city will be a quarter of the size of Mumbai but with only 2% of the population. There isn’t a town on earth I know of that is so tightly controlled that the size is decided upfront, except maybe a retirement village.
I also wonder what this means for the poorer families on the outskirts of the city. When the Lavasa Corporation arrived in the Western Ghats, 150 families moved out of the valley.
“They just moved from their land? Didn’t they mind?” I ask.
“They were hardly connected to the city,” a spokeswoman tells me. “There used to be a bus maybe once a day, maybe less.” Now there are regular buses. And to help keep the peace, the corporation also gave them electricity connections for the first time, and built creches to educate the local children. “This is better for them,” she insists.
I leave Lavasa the following day. Rushing to the airport, the driver is reluctant to take a shortcut. He tells me he’s scared to go down the minor roads because people living outside Lavasa throw rocks at vehicles coming out of the city when they see them.
Some fear that the environmental impact on this corner of the Western Ghats may be too big, and that’s why work is currently at a standstill. The Lavasa Corporation is waiting for clearance before it can continue construction, which, given the might of the project, I am sure it will do. But I wonder whether the geeky governance model being used here can be replicated, as the corporation seems to believe, or if it runs the risk of turning India into an even more split society by introducing a digital divide where economic divides already exist. Lavasans will be living their hi-tech, sheltered lives parallel to the forest-dwelling tribes just a few mountains away. For it to work, it would have to meet everyone’s needs, not just those of the wealthy and privileged.
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Angela Saini is a science journalist. Extracted from Geek Nation, How Indian Science is Taking Over the World.