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Creating subjects in Lavasa: the private city

Through a process of devolution to private enterprises, a number of private cities are emerging across the Indian landscape. While private cities have been lauded by some as symbolic of a modern, global India, their impact on the nature of democracy and citizenship in the emerging city remains a contentious issue.

The picturesque city of Lavasa is located in the western hill range of India between the cities of Mumbai and Pune. Lavasa is an amalgamation of twenty villages encompassing seven hills and, on completion, will have an area of 100 sq km. The city is representative of a rapidly urbanising India, with one crucial difference - there is no democratic electoral process at the city-level. Lavasa is governed by Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL), a private enterprise. This arrangement has resulted in a unique form of governance that challenges the notions of democracy and citizenship in the Indian context.


Lavasa, 2010. Persis Taraporevala.

Public opinion of the city is deeply divided. One faction of Indian society envisions Lavasa as an embodiment of a new emerging India with planned world-class cities that can act as engines of growth for the nation. Others are deeply critical of the city, predominantly, for the problematic processes that were utilised while acquiring land and the breach of environmental laws while constructing the city. Lost in this fray of adulation and accusation is a critical study of the governance body and its relationship with the citizens of Lavasa.

History

The governing body in Lavasa has not arisen out of a void but through a slow systematic hollowing out of the state machinery by the Government. In the 1980s, the State Government (Maharashtra) decided to increase revenue through prioritising tourism across the state, and chose seven sites, including the current location of Lavasa, to attract tourists. These sites would each be governed by a Special Planning Authority (SPA), comprised of bureaucrats and technocrats. Since the sites were located in ecologically sensitive areas, there were stringent regulations controlling the size of the sites and the extent of felling and excavation allowed. Over time these regulations were diluted, and between 2001 and 2004 the regulation controlling the size of site was removed, further excavation and felling of trees were allowed and most importantly the SPA could now be constituted by any agency or authority deemed fit by the State Government, including private enterprises. In 2008 Lavasa Corporation Limited was notified as the Special Planning Authority of the 100 sq km that constitutes Lavasa, by the State Government. As the SPA of the area, LCL has been vested with most of the powers and functions of the local self-governing body or the municipality of the area.  The geographical jurisdiction of the SPA covers the area that LCL owns within the 100 sq km of the notified area, which is currently limited to 50 sq km. The SPA can buy, hold and sell land and property, it can provide the area with utilities like water, electricity, gas, sewage treatment and other amenities that are required to develop and improve the area.

The SPA is accountable to the Town Planning Department of Pune, the nearest city, and it must submit plans to this Department for approval. While this arrangement does bring in some level of accountability, the overall structure and functioning of the LCL creates spaces that are disenfranchising and restrictive. The city is partially functional as only two phases of the planned four phases are inhabitable, thus understanding the relationship between the governing body and the citizens is speculative and based on a critical analysis of the governing body and their contractual relationship with the residents.


Lake side in Lavasa. Wikimedia Commons.

Disenfranchisement

The structure of the Special Planning Authority is necessarily disenfranchising as the governing body is selected on behalf of the local people by LCL. The citizens also cannot participate in government by standing for elections. The loss of political rights is indicative of a thinning down of citizenship to the extent that the individuals are moving away from the empowered role of citizens and toward the rather archaic role of subjects. This relationship is explicitly described in the contract between Lavasa and its residents.

The contract states that LCL, as the SPA, can collect fines, fees, service taxes and deposits. These amounts can be changed, as per the perception of the company. The agreement states that the customer cannot object to these changes and must pay the new fees and prices for land and services rendered for maintenance and administration. A customer cannot sell or lease out her property without consent from LCL. In case a customer decides to sue LCL, the contract stipulates that this could only be done through a process of arbitration in Mumbai. LCL has the right to choose the arbitrator and all proceedings have to be conducted in English. Furthermore LCL can transfer its authority to any nominee that the company sees fit. This third party or nominee will then undertake all the powers and functions attributed to Lavasa Corporation Limited. This nominee in turn can charge customers fees and also undertake functions related to the general management and supervision of the city. The document states that the customer cannot object to the appointment of such nominees. Finally, LCL can terminate the contracts of individuals, if they have been termed a nuisance by other residents or by the company itself. There is no explanation of what would constitute nuisance. The lease also states that the customer acknowledges the legitimacy of the guidelines created by Lavasa Corporation Limited and follows these guidelines, knowing that they can be changed whenever the Special Planning Authority deems appropriate.

The company has sweeping rights over nearly all aspects of the life of the residents; it has the right to evict, to tax, to determine the use and design of land, to change the governing body and to change the rules while controlling the rights of people to object to these processes. Should residents feel the need to seek justice, their right to protest and their chance of getting a fair and independent arbitrator is also compromised.

Conflict of Interest

The Special Planning Authority in Lavasa conflates two roles, the role of the governing body and the role of the planning body. The former is supposed to administrate and govern over an area, and is legitimised by the fact that it is elected and is accountable to the citizens who live in the area. The second role of the planning body is the role of a development authority and consists of appointed technocrats. The Special Planning Authority conflates the two roles and is simultaneously the governing and planning authority of the area. Traditionally, cities have municipalities to govern the city and the role of the planning authority is restricted to infrastructure development and town planning. In addition to conflating these two roles, as the SPA consists of people chosen by the private company that have business interests in the area, a conflict of interest could arise. If the SPA chose to administrate and govern so as to benefit the company over the needs of the citizens, the voices and the needs of the people might be sacrificed, in the absence of accountability to people and in the interest of profit maximisation.

In this approach to citizenship, market rationalism dictates and structures governmental processes and the equality of outcome for the citizens is not ensured. Individuals are viewed as active participants in the market, capable of promoting their own interests and thus the outputs and lives of these citizens would be a reflection of their individual skills and resources. This free market approach to citizenship does not guarantee that all people will be able to participate in citizenship because the criterion for participation is based on access to capital. In this formulation, citizenship is neither a universal right nor a moral prerogative.

Relevance

While there are only a few cities that are discussed as private cities in India, there are hundreds of private cities in the form of Special Economic Zones. An SEZ is a development enclave that is state sanctioned but owned and governed by a developer. The ‘developer’, according to the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005 could be a government body or any agency that has permission from the Central Government to set up an SEZ, including private enterprises. This arrangement is similar to the Special Planning Authority of Lavasa where the developer is also the governing body and all previous local governing bodies are dissolved. There are currently over 900 approved SEZs in India and more private cities have been planned along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. These development enclaves are rationalised on the basis of economic growth while simultaneously undermining the democratic foundation of the nation and the sovereignty and rights of the citizen. With hundreds of these privately governed areas dotting the nation, this model of urbanisation is swiftly replicating itself across the Indian landscape.

Lavasa and the other privately governed areas in India, follow the principles of good governance and transparency in a corporate context. These spaces pride themselves for their efficient private administration, security, efficiency, cleanliness while remaining silent on issues of democracy and accountability. What is alarming is that the acceptability of these private governing bodies has arisen in a complete vacuum of debate on the political ramifications that such bodies would have on citizenship and governance as a whole. It is imperative that India debates these issues or else her citizens may unwittingly override their basic rights and liberties in the bargain of creating world-class cities and infrastructure.

About the author

Persis Taraporevala is a Research Associate with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Her primary research interest has been governance which she has studied through the lens of decentralised indigenous forest conservation processes in India and the theoretical underpinnings of citizenship in the urban context.


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