Bura mat maanna, main
says the auto-driver, glancing half backwards. We are mid-way between Pune
railway station and Magarpatta City, and deep into a discussion about the cost
of living. He is apologetic not for being Muslim, but for bringing up the
matter of his religion at all. He was eligible for a government job, but feels
he was discriminated against. He has since worked hard, and can now even rent
out a spare auto. He is around fifty earns almost ₹40,000 a month, but
still lives in a jhopadpatti. It’s the five children, he tells me. He can
either spend on their education or on living in a comfortable house.
“We’ve given ourselves a bad name,” he says. “If we followed the teachings of our religion correctly, no one can point a finger at us. But we don’t.” What does he mean, I ask.
“Look at what I’m doing right now,” he says, turning to face me while the auto hurtles on. “I’m taking more money from you than I should. But I need the money, and you can afford a little extra.”
The fare he has quoted is 50 per cent over the usual, and despite the confession, he shows no qualms in collecting the entire sum. His confidence that I can afford to pay a little extra stems from my destination: if you live or work in Magarpatta City, chances are you are upper middle-class or above.
I was intrigued by the place when I first came here a year ago to visit my friend, Rahul.
After turning left on the Pune-Solapur highway and proceeding half a kilometre along the Mundhwa Road, the difference between the left and right sides of the busy road becomes striking. On the right, separated from the road by a dusty, uneven lip is a jumble of shops, small stand-alone houses, flats, office buildings, aimlessly open spaces. On the left is a neat band of green separating the road from a compound wall. The wall curves left by a sign that announces Magarpatta City, its entrance framed by two giant gray boxes. Underneath, security personnel raise the traffic barrier to allow entry into a place that doesn’t in the least resemble the outside.
Inside, it seems perceptibly cooler. The road is less congested and lined by trees. It isn’t as dusty. There isn’t rubble lying around. The road soon leads to a large grassy roundabout where the haze of a mist fountain for a second gives the impression of being in the mountains, with the fanned-out clutch of palms in the immediate background serving to quickly bring one down to a coastal idyll. A board proclaims: Welcome to the Oxygen Zone.
Clean and even roads spread out from here to various parts of Magarpatta City. Along the footpaths are sharply trimmed hedges and trees planted in rows, all this greenery reaching its peak at the enormous park at the very centre of Magarpatta City.
At the gate of Rahul’s apartment complex, a security guard asks me for ID proof and painstakingly enters my details in a register.
After some wandering about the several buildings of the complex I find the right one, take an elevator to the eighth floor, and am at Rahul’s house.
I later learn that inside the compound are restaurants, a shopping centre, a hospital, a school. A person could live here a long time without having to venture outside—the “city” in the name is no exaggeration. But for all the order and efficiency of Magarpatta City, I couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling that there was a strange bareness to this world too. If it is less haphazard than the world outside it is also less organic, and it somehow has the frictionless texture of a city inhabited in a dream.
People have always formed clusters within larger human settlements. The earliest instance in India might date back to the Harappan civilisation, excavations of whose cities show evidence of an upper town and lower town, a distinction present to various degrees even in today's cities.
Urban populations have since formed pockets based on economic class, occupation, religion, caste, and even diet. Cities have Sindhi and Parsi colonies, cantonments, neighbourhoods associated with communities or trades. Educational institutions and government organisations have had large and more-or-less self-sufficient campuses. Industries have spawned entire cities—Rourkela, Jamshedpur—as their townships.
Despite this history, many of the enclaves, townships and gated communities that have come up on the periphery of every large Indian city in the last decade are proving to be different. These are places where the sole criterion for inclusion is economic class—the ability to buy into the community. While there have always been upmarket residential areas, they have seldom been completely closed to others. But these communities maintain a firm exclusion with security cameras, guards, compound walls and gates. Unlike campuses or industrial townships where the highest and lowest designations shared communal spaces, gated communities give their residents the choice of being surrounded by people of similar economic stature on an unprecedented scale: a few towering buildings to villa communities to entire private cities. This also means that these communities can circumvent the problems of the city outside their compounds: crime, traffic, pollution, shortages of power and water.
The reasons for the recent spurt in the number of such communities in India are not hard to find. Cities are getting more crowded, income disparity is increasing, and the middle-class and affluent expect security and a quality of life that governments and city corporations are unable to provide.
The Planning Commission's Human Development Report released in October 2011 states that in urban India 90 per cent of assets are owned by the top 40 per cent of households. At the same time, urban population, according to Census of India reports from 2011, has grown by 31.8 per cent in the last decade, while rural population has grown by only 12.18 per cent.
To look specifically at Pune City, the population within Pune Municipal Corporation limits has almost doubled in the last twenty years: from 16.91 lakh in 1991 to 31.15 lakhin 2011. Around 40 per cent of the city’s population lives in slums. At the same time real estate listings for Pune are full of gated community offerings in various areas.
There are also large residential or integrated township projects on the outskirts of Pune City that can house a significant number of people, such as Megapolis (150 acres), Blueridge (188 acres), Magarpatta City (430 acres), Amanora Township (450 acres), and Nanded City (700 acres).
Enclosed urban enclaves have been around in other countries for a while. In the USA, gated communities have existed since the 1960s as havens for the retired or affluent. In Saudi Arabia they have allowed expat employees of oil companies and their families to continue to lead a familiar lifestyle. The growing disparity in income and rising crime rates have forced the rich in South America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, to take refuge behind walls.
Gated communities and enclaves have been welcomed for reducing the burden on city corporations and the police by being self-sufficient. They also represent an opportunity for planned development that can provide ecologically sustainable living spaces.
Scholarly analysis of the phenomenon of gated communities has also thrown up phrases such as “civil secession” and noted an increasing and not always justified perception of urban fear. These communities have earned censure for their exclusivity, isolation, and lack of political engagement. But perhaps there lurks a deeper fear that is given expression in fiction and cinema in the West, where gated communities have been around for longer.
This is the idea that groups of people who live in isolation will somehow end up creating warped realities for themselves. The satirical novel The Stepford Wives (and the two films made of it) is set in a gated community in which the men turn independent-minded women into submissive robots.
They were trapped forever within a perfect universe. In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.
The Mexican-Spanish-Argentine film La Zona shows an exclusive gated community in Mexico that is paranoid about security. A security breach results in the men and children of the community arming themselves and hunting down the intruder—a frightened boy. There are several unnecessary deaths and when the police try to intervene they are paid off by the wealthy and powerful residents.
J G Ballard’s novella Running Wild tells the story of a gated community in which all the adults are found murdered one morning with the children missing. It turns out that the murderers are the children, who have engaged in an act of “mass tyrannicide”.
Ballard’s narrator says of the children, “They were trapped forever within a perfect universe. In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.”
With so many townships and gated communities coming up, what does it mean for a person to live in one? Are the somewhat hysterical fears of novels and films justified? Are the opportunities for planned urban development and the hopes of improved quality of life realised? I decide to go back to Magarpatta City, live there for a while, and see for myself. The ever-generous Rahul offers me the use of his spare room for as long as I want to stay. I end up spending nearly a month in Magarpatta City.
Magarpatta City happens to be an interesting place for several reasons. The project was conceived by a group of farmers and built on agricultural land, and in this way is part of the ongoing story of India’s transformation from an agrarian economy to an urbanised, industrial one.
While several other gated communities offer luxurious lifestyles for the wealthy few, Magarpatta City tends to be less marginal. It is an upper middle-class community of around 35,000 people. It is an integrated township with both residential and commercial areas, and some 60,000 people work here, mostly in the IT sector. And since there are shops, restaurants, a park, a bank, a hospital, a health-club, and other amenities, it is possible for a person who both lives and works here never to have to leave the compound.
The story of Magarpatta City’s inception has been told several times, and with good reason. A group of farmers in Hadapsar came together to protect their land and interests. Not only did they succeed in doing this beyond anyone’s expectations, they also ended up creating an unprecedented model of urban development. The land on which these farmers grew sugarcane and vegetables was marked by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) as a “future urbanisable zone” in 1982.
This meant that their lands could be acquired by the PMC under the Urban Land Ceiling Act to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding city. Although the agricultural status of the land was renewed in 1987, the city had already begun to press upon the area.
Some farmers nearby had sold their small land holdings and, unable to manage the sudden influx of cash and loss of occupation, had squandered the money. The land-holders of Magarpatta decided that they would come together and develop the land into a township.
The land-holders were largely from the Magar family, who trace their connection with the land back to more than 200 years. The 123 families together had around 430 acres of land. They were represented by one of the larger land holders, Satish Magar, who was trusted by the clan, had experience in marketing, and was politically well-connected.
With Satish Magar as MD the farmers formed a company—Magarpatta Township Development and Construction Company Ltd—in which each of them had a share proportional to the land they owned, they developed a plan for an integrated township in which residential units would be sold and office space leased to ensure a continued income and connection with the land.
Satish Magar took a detailed plan of the proposed township to the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar in 1994. From there began a long process of inspections and approvals that culminated in the project getting underway in late 2000.
The farmers of Magarpatta had to be resettled, even if it was on their own land. They bought bungalows or apartments with their percentage from the sales of residential units and so continued to live there.
Some bought shops or additional apartments and rented them out. The younger generation of farmers were counselled, and according to their aptitudes were trained in various professions. The company arranged loans for them to get them started as entrepreneurs in various areas: building construction, labour contracts, security services, landscaping, maintenance work, retail sales. Contracts for work in Magarpatta City and jobs in the company were provided to the locals so they continued to have productive work there.
In terms of income, the project has been a windfall to the original land-owners. The earliest sales in Magarpatta City were made at around ₹1,000 per sqare foot. Today prices are between ₹5,000 and ₹6,000 per square foot.
In addition to income from their businesses and rents from the properties they own, they receive a share of the money earned by the company from office-space rentals and from fees for allowing advertisements and films to be shot in Magarpatta City.
The amount distributed in 2011 was ₹23 crore among 123 share-holding families with over 800 beneficiaries.
“The vision is walk-to-work, walk-to-shop, walk-to-school,” says one of the people associated with Satish Magar’s office as he takes me on a tour of Magarpatta City in his car. He tells me of how Satish Magar visited various places to draw inspiration for the city he was going to build.
The walk-to-work concept came from a visit to San Jose, as also the conviction that numbered sectors and buildings such as in Chandigarh were unfriendly; the idea of having flats open into a central space to encourage neighbourliness came from visiting chawls in Girgaum, Mumbai. The artist Ravi Paranjpe suggested the broad aesthetic theme of the five forces of nature and that there be plants in the township that flower during different seasons to mark the passage of time. Most residential complexes are named after flowers—Jasminium, Trillium, Iris, Laburnum Park.
Around 120 acres of Magarpatta City is landscaped greenery. At the heart is Aditi Gardens, 25 acres of lawns, trees, walkways, benches and a lake. Surrounding the garden is Cybercity—twelve glass towers that put together have six million square feet of IT space and can support 60,000 employees of IT and financial companies, and 20,000 support staff.
Radiating outwards are the residential areas comprising layouts for bungalows and row-houses and a dozen compounds, each with several multi-story apartment buildings. There are around 7,500 residential units in total. Each building has a play area for children, parking, and an open space in the centre. Magarpatta City has an ICSE school, a hospital, a management institute, a petrol pump, a health-club, a tennis academy, a football ground, a luxury serviced apartment for visitors with an attached lounge bar and restaurant, two stand-alone restaurants named Yummy Tummy and Deccan Harvest, and a large lawn for weddings and other sizeable events. The hub of commercial life is Destination Centre, a shopping complex with administrative offices, a bank, small restaurants and eateries, and shops selling everyday necessities. Nearing completion in the north-eastern corner of Magarpatta City is the Seasons Mall, built on twelve acres of land, and a fifteen screen multiplex theatre.
The towering green tank that supplies water to Magarpatta City is fed from a water treatment plant that receives water from the PMC, and is sometimes supplemented by ground-water.
Around 20 lakh litres of potable water flows out to residents every day. Power is supplied by the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (MSEDCL) through a sub-station in Magarpatta City. Generator backup is provided for elevators, street lights and for lighting in the common areas.
“It’s a completely eco-friendly design,” my guide tells me as we drive around. He shows me the lake and some of the 350 bore-holes drilled to recharge the water table. Paved surfaces have cut-outs and the lawns have mounds and undulations to capture rain-water. Construction of the township has been with recycled fly-ash bricks, some 1.3 lakh tonnes in all.
The residential buildings all have solar water heaters—7,625 panels, I’m told, that cumulatively are estimated to save 15.7 million electrical units a year. The residents are required to separate dry and wet waste. At the waste processing unit we see heaps of sacks containing plastic bottles or tin cans, ready to be sold to recyclers.
The wet waste is converted into compost to be used in the gardens. Sewage passes through a treatment plant that has a capacity of 50 lakh litres per day. A room with a large balloon as its centre-piece turns out to be a two-tonne biogas plant that generates 270 electrical units a day from sewage sludge. This power is used to pump the reclaimed water to the gardens.
The residential buildings all have solar water heaters—7,625 panels, I’m told, that cumulatively are estimated to save 15.7 million electrical units a year. The residents are required to separate dry and wet waste. At the waste processing unit we see heaps of sacks containing plastic bottles or tin cans, ready to be sold to recyclers.
Magarpatta City is protected by almost 7 km of compound wall with three barricaded entry points, around 1,000 security personnel, a dog squad for detecting bomb threats, and around 750 CCTV cameras. Maintenance is undertaken by the Property Maintenance Services (PMS) division, which employs 876 people, and which maintains the common area and acts as a one-stop go-to for residents for anything related to electrical fixtures, plumbing, cable TV, and broadband Internet. They also must grant approval before any work in the flats, such as painting or installation of furniture, antennas or ACs.
The PMS also enforces township rules by issuing warnings and imposing fines: for example, leaving dustbins outside the door for more than an hour after garbage collection time invites a fine of ₹100; leaving anything—shoes, pots, bicycles—in the common area attracts a fine of ₹200. Residents pay a one-time maintenance charge at the time of purchase. They also pay a corporation tax, but the PMC plays no active role inside Magarpatta City.
Internally, there exists an informally appointed Citizens’ Council of 112 residents to offer guidance and feedback to the management, but they do not take independent decisions. In addition, there exist committees to organise activities related to culture, sports and other areas of interest.
Residents of Magarpatta City—known locally as Magarpatta Citizens or, sometimes, City-zens—are largely young IT professionals in their twenties or thirties. This accounts for the large number of children, around a quarter of the population. A small but significant group is the Magar clan who continue to live here. Occasionally one will see a group of elderly men in Aditi Gardens dressed in the attire of the Maharashtrian farmer. (For ready reference, imagine the Anna Hazare wardrobe).
NRIs and the retired seem to enjoy the less chaotic environs relative to the outside. Magarpatta City also generates considerable employment for nearby areas with a steady stream of cooks, domestic help and labour entering daily.
Some of the people who live or work in Magarpatta City agreed to share their stories.
Of all the people interviewed for this article, Tulsabai proves the hardest to get time with. She works as a cook in three houses in Magarpatta City, and despite some mild scepticism, agrees when I ask through one of her employers if she would speak with me.
But she’d prefer our conversation to be in the presence of didi, the lady of the house, who is at home only on weekends. To complicate matters further, Tulsabai is about to go on leave for a week to attend a relative’s wedding. So it is after considerable wheeling and dealing that I find myself, one Saturday morning, sitting in didi’s fifth-floor kitchen where Tulsabai is preparing lunch. She is a compact, bustling woman of around forty who wears her well-oiled black hair in a tight bun. After some initial reticence she proves such a willing talker that didi begins to fret for the food simmering away on the stove.
The reason I am keen to hear about Tulsabai's life is that she has spent most of her life working on this land, first as daily wage farm labour, then as landscaper, then as domestic help, and now as cook. What does a place like Magarpatta City mean to someone who lives just outside and is not as affluent?
Tulsabai was married before she was 12 and received no schooling. “I can’t even sign my name,” she says. She recalls her younger days, when she worked in the sugarcane fields here for ₹5 per day, as a time of great hardship.
“Use sticks and a towel to make a cradle for the child, some puffed rice for the day. Who wants all that?” she says, with an expression of disgust.
When the development of Magarpatta City began, she began to work on the same land as a landscaper, receiving ₹40 per day. As people began to move into their houses, she started working as domestic help, charging a couple of hundred rupees per month from each of her houses “for every item”: vessels, clothes, sweeping and mopping. For the last few years she has started to work as a cook. She spends her mornings cooking in three houses and now earns around ₹6,000 every month.
Tulsabai’s husband worked in construction, and in the catering company in Magarpatta City after agriculture here came to an end. They have three children. The eldest, 23, began working early and is now a construction supervisor here. Another son, 21, studied in an ITI (Industrial Training Institute) and works in a factory.
The youngest son is in the 12th standard. Tulsabai is relieved that her sons have kept to the straight and narrow despite. She summarises their day as: “Padhai, kaam, ghar, TV.”
Tulsabai lives in a jhopadpatti nearby in Hadapsar. She says about the people around her: “Previously they all had to travel large distances to work, but now everyone works in Magarpatta City.”
But there are others who travel large distances to work in Magarpatta City. She tells me of one woman who commutes daily from Daund, around 70 km away, to work as domestic help.
To enter Magarpatta City daily, as Tulsabai does, requires a pass issued by the security office and signed by the employer. She tells me of the copious documentation required: “Light bill, ration card, neighbours' contact information, village address, photographs.”
Someone who wants to looks for work here can accompany a person with this pass for two days, after which they'll have to have their own pass made.
Tulsabai’s family has now built their own house, but they have rented it out for the time being. They will move when her oldest son gets married: “She will be educated. Why should they live in a jhopadpatti?”
Her second son now wants to work in one of the companies in Magarpatta City. (She doesn’t know as what, but possibly in a call centre.) He has asked her for money to pay for a training course, but she has told him to save up for a while and pay for it himself.
Tulsabai’s daily routine involves cooking and packing lunch for her husband and sons, coming to Magarpatta City to cook in three other houses, then returning to do the washing and cleaning in her own house.
Her only complaint is that her sons insist on wearing jeans, which are hard to wash by hand. One of her employers gave her a bicycle a couple of years back. She learnt how to ride it and now her short commute has become easier. She says about her current situation: “Bahut haal nikaal nikaalke thoda accha hua. Abhi sab sukh hai.” (Things have improved after a lot of struggle. Now everything is fine.)
Aditi is a soft-spoken
woman of 31. Over a cup of coffee at Cafe Coffee Day in Magarpatta
City, she talks about growing up in Delhi.
“My family didn’t have a car and we couldn’t afford auto-rickshaw every day, so I’d go to school by public bus.” She shudders when she recalls the experience: “For a girl it’s just horrible there. I thought then that money is my solution. I said to myself, ‘I will never travel by bus when I have money’.”
Aditi has been living and working in Magarpatta City since she left college. She met her husband here, who also lives and works in Magarpatta City. They are both IT professionals. Besides work, which sometimes spills over into their home, they play tennis and visit the common gym. Household work is largely taken care of by a cook and a woman who comes in to do the cleaning and washing. On some weekends Aditi and her husband may drive into Pune to eat out or watch a movie. Of late Aditi has taken to buying vegetables outside since she feels the prices are much lower.
When I ask if living in an enclave can be thought of as trying to escape the city outside, she says, “There is so much chaos in our country. Sometimes all you can do is to escape it. You can't change everything.” But Aditi still holds out hope for the city outside. She and her husband are conscientious voters. But she says she has never seen anyone she recognises at the voting booth. She has begun using public transport again on her visits to Delhi and says things have improved considerably. If it improves in Pune, too, she says, they might head out more often.
Amita lives in a flat
in Magarpatta City with her teenage daughter. She grew up in the United States,
but is of Indian origin, and speaks Marathi. It had always been her dream to
live in India, she says, but she never got the opportunity. So when her
marriage ended a few years back, she decided to move to India. Amita is a
petite and extraordinarily fit woman (she has worked as a fitness instructor in
the past). Her speech bears an American inflection and her animated demeanour
often undercuts the directness of her words.
“Indians are bad,” she says, with a cheery lack of bitterness. Her first business venture here ended after she was defrauded by her partner.
“If you’re a single female in India, they rip you off. You can’t get anywhere.” But she had a good experience with buying a flat in Magarpatta City, and is thankful she made the purchase when prices were relatively low. She also appreciates the feeling of security that comes from living in an enclave. “I get scared the minute I go outside,” she says. “It’s safe here.”
Amita also finds some aspects of living in Magarpatta City stifling. She says she had wanted to put up notices for a small design shop she had started, but she wasn’t allowed to.
A notice put up with the shop-owner’s permission inside a shop in Destination Centre was ripped off by security. She tried slipping flyers into people's mailboxes, but, as she puts it somewhat dramatically, “five security guards came and treated me like a thief”. She was told to take permission from the PMS office, who then allowed her to distribute flyers for an hour for a charge of ₹500.
Amita rules out living anywhere outside, citing a lack of civic sense. “You can’t do anything. Even the government can't do anything. It’s the people who are bad. They spit everywhere, they urinate. Rich people are like that, too.
“Even here, some grandparents let their kids urinate in the garden. ‘Excuse me, can you not do that,’ I said to one of them, and you know what they said? ‘But your dog does it’.”
Satish Magar (Managing Director, Magarpatta Township Development and Construction Co. Ltd.)
Satish Magar is a tall,
strongly built man in his fifties with a reticent air about him. He comes
across as so direct and straight-forward in his speech that it is not hard to
imagine the farmers of Magarpatta entrusting their land and future to him. “It
was not very difficult to bring people together,” he says, a touch modestly.
“It was selling a dream, after all.” Magarpatta City, he says, is not just a real estate project. “When it comes to urbanisation I think community development is the most important aspect. No settlement can be successful without human interaction.“ It is to this end that Magarpatta City organises communal celebrations of festivals and encourages committees to organise sports and cultural activities. Early on in the history of Magarpatta City, when it wasn’t completely clear how well it would do, members of a certain community— Magar won’t say which one—had come to him with a proposal. They would buy 400 flats, they had said. But they wanted these flats to be together, they wanted a religious structure there, and they wanted certain dietary restrictions nearby. Satish Magar refused, and twice more when others had come with similar proposals. “We wanted to be an open community,” he says. Even the extended Magar family were not allotted flats together to ensure that they would integrate better with the other residents.
Satish Magar lived in a hostel while studying at the agricultural university in Pune. He found it an entirely different world from the Cambridge affiliated school he attended. “There were people from villages, from Nagaland. I experienced the diversity of India for the first time.” That is the reason, he says, Magarpatta City offers education up to the tenth standard, and then at the post-graduate level. “You have to go out for college. Otherwise it’s like solitary confinement.”
Towards the beginning of my interview with Satish Magar I mention Aditi Kumar to him as someone who met her husband in Magarpatta City. A short while later he breaks off what he is saying and drops his undemonstrative mien for a moment. He turns and beams at an associate. “I never knew there were people who met here and got married,” he says. “We should meet them.”
Ajay might count as one
of the discontents of Magarpatta City. He is a slightly stocky, bespectacled
man in his late 20s, who lives and works in Magarpatta City. Ajay grew up in an
industrial township called Kirloskarwadi in the south of Maharashtra. When he
started working in Pune, his father suggested he buy a flat in Magarpatta since
the place was similar to a township.
I first meet Ajay at a meeting of the Pune south-east chapter of Toastmasters International, an international non-profit that provides a structure for its members to form local groups and improve their public speaking and leadership skills. Ajay delivers a humorous speech about his first time on an airplane.
This was when he went to the United States on work, a period that may have shaped his expectations regarding quality of life. He believes that living in Magarpatta City is certainly more convenient than living outside: “You save time on basic things—you don't have to deal with maintenance, security. There’s less traffic and pollution.” Still, it falls short of his ideal: “But I don’t think it is world-class. Outside factors affect this place, because of which it cannot be as good as in a developed country.”
One of the “outside factors” he cites is the 23-acre garbage dump in Hadapsar. It can sometimes be smelt from Magarpatta, depending on the wind, and Ajay feels this can prove a health concern. He also feels that Magarpatta City is not as self-sufficient as it should be. “They haven’t considered the entertainment aspect. Also, we have to go outside to access a super-market like Big Bazaar.” A large mall and multiplex are under construction, but Ajay feels they should have been opened earlier.
He also believes the security could be more rigorous. He cites an instance where his friend rode his motorcycle into Magarpatta City, into Ajay’s building's compound, and reached Ajay’s flat without being stopped once by security staff. He contrasts this with the new development across the road from Magarpatta—Amanora Township—which has video door phones and smart card access. Ajay would like to see a biometric system in place to verify that drivers or buses and taxis, and domestic help, are indeed who they say they are.
Ajay sometimes finds it restrictive living in a closed enclave. He brings up Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement as an example: “Outside, in Pune, colleges were shut and people organised rallies, even employees of software companies. But nothing happened here. There is a problem with organising anything here. You have to first take permission from the PMS office.
“The right to protest is a basic right of an Indian citizen. Why should you need anyone’s permission? Even if you are having a small birthday party and you need 20 chairs, you must give an application and they will deliver it to your flat. You can’t just bring the chairs from outside. Security can create a problem.”
Ajay is in charge of publicity for his chapter of Toastmasters, but he hasn’t been able to get permission to circulate flyers or put up a poster at Destination Centre. “It’s a long process,” he says. He does believe that the management is well-intentioned and has particular regard for Satish Magar, whom he plans to meet to convey the benefits people in the community will accrue from joining Toastmasters.
“Groups such as Art of Living and Brahmakumaris have in the past held events in the community hall. If the management is convinced that an activity is good for the residents, they will allow it.”
Ajay has bought a second flat in Magarpatta as an investment and rented it out. He plans to emigrate soon to Australia for the change of environment and a better quality of life. He tells me, as our meeting concludes, that to hear the other side of the story, I must meet his brother, Vijay, who sees in Magarpatta City an enormous opportunity.
Vijay has a keen
interest in city planning and transport and has lived in Mumbai, Pune,
Kolkata and Chicago. “For me it’s a no-brainer,” he says.
“If you look at the availability of clean air, water, food, easy access to work, Magarpatta will come out on top.” The idea behind Magarpatta City, he says, is for kids to be safe while playing or walking to school, and for parents to eliminate their work commute altogether by walking to nearby offices. “The government is not capable of providing good roads and transport, and this is a model where you don’t use transport at all. The moment the government comes in, you are going to suffer. It is unfortunate that I have to say this.”
Vijay is near-reverential in his consideration of Satish Magar’s achievement. “Basically, he is interested in improving people’s quality of life. The kind of leadership and vision that has gone into the making of this place, I don’t think people living here now know it. People should contribute to this vision. He is particularly saddened when he sees people using cars and motorcycles to travel short distances inside Magarpatta City.”
To Vijay, Magarpatta City is more than just a place that offers good quality of life. He sees it as a crucible that can pave the way for a larger urban transformation. He has been involved with organisations that have tried to work with the Pune Municipal Corporation to address the traffic situation in Pune, but he found that it was hard to change anything. “But in this place, you can change things,” he tells me animatedly. “You can approach the committees with your ideas. If the committee is not working, you can go up to Satish Magar. You can join the committee yourself. People who complain about this place— you must ask them what exactly they have done after coming here. If you have a problem outside, nobody will listen to you. At least here you can try to do something.”
“I like unsolved problems,” Vijay tells me. For instance, he converted the PMPNL bus routes into the requisite format and uploaded it to Google Maps so that the site can now be used to navigate Pune by bus. “In Magarpatta the solution already exists. Maybe when I'm forty I will take up a barren piece of land somewhere and develop a city.”
Vijay Patil suggests
KM’s name when I ask for an example of someone who has tried to change or
create something in Magarpatta City. As a matter of principle, KM asks that I
use only his initials to refer to him. He doesn’t want his name to be attached
with the couple of community endeavours he initiated at Magarpatta City.
We meet on a Saturday afternoon on the lawns of Yummy Tummy to discuss his experiences. KM works in the IT sector and is a still, wiry man in his thirties with a propensity for breaking into sudden smiles. He has been living in Magarpatta City for the last seven years and particularly appreciates the fact that his five year old daughter gets adequate space and safety to play outside.
KM was an enthusiastic chess player in college and on his visits abroad had seen public areas where people could play chess. He felt that such a space would be good to have at some central spot in Magarpatta City so that strangers could meet.
“You have to be a little smart to bring about the change you wish,” he tells me, commenting about some others who have been unable to have their complaints or suggestions heard by the management.
KM presented his idea to Satish Magar and offered to buy the chess sets if the administration would provide chairs and tables. The entrance of Destination Centre was chosen as an appropriate venue, and each Saturday morning KM would ensure that chairs, tables and chess sets were set out. Now, chess on Saturday mornings has become a tradition or sorts, and goes on without KM's involvement.
Being a keen reader, KM felt the need for a library in Magarpatta City. He came up with the idea of a cooperative library. Membership would be by contributing at least one book, and members would volunteer to take care of the logistics of running the library. KM took care to ensure that money did not change hands at any point: “Once it becomes commercial, the responsibility increases, it's harder to get permission.”
Again, KM presented the idea of the library to Satish Magar. The administration agreed to provide a room for the library, as well as shelves, a phone and a computer with Internet.
In two months the library had over 300 members and around 2000 books, all donated by the community. One man even donated his entire collection of books on spirituality, and a van had to be enlisted to transport the books.
The library was kept open for two hours every other day, sometimes by children, and for over a year by a retired man in his seventies. But ultimately, involvement from the community wasn't enough for the library to sustain itself. When users chided him for occasional irregularity or for inconvenient timings, KM would offer them the keys and ask them to take responsibility for opening the library when it was convenient to them. “But even regular users reacted violently to any such suggestion. People expected to be served, not to serve.”
On a morning walk in
Aditi Gardens I pass residents in various attitudes of exercise. There
are joggers, hurtling brisk-walkers, calisthenic toe-touchers, sniffing
A pair of Brahmakumaris are intercepting the more languid strollers to invite them to a discourse at the nearby Amanora Township. At around 8 am the speakers dotted along the walk-ways strike up the national anthem and everyone abandons their exertions to stands at attention (except an elderly jogger who, probably unwilling to risk a sudden stop, jogs on the spot). It’s one of Magarpatta City's traditions to play the national anthem and have the security office hoist the national flag every morning.
Other traditions include a parade of security personnel on Republic Day and communal celebrations of festivals. The first day of Diwali sees residents come together to light thousands of lamps along the streets with electric lights turned off. The ten-day Ganesha festival, I’m told, is particularly spectacular, with daily performances by residents.
The largest gathering of Magarpatta Citizens is the Foundation Day celebration, held on December 3, when 20,000 people gather on the Laxmi lawns for a performance. This time it is a concert by the singer Shreya Ghoshal.
That afternoon, Rahul and I stand in line outside the Marketing Office to collect our free passes, which are for some reason being issued at an excruciatingly slow rate. The sun is fierce and there is no shade.
A young woman and man
examine the queue with some dismay. The woman then goes to the head of the line
and picks a fight with the security guard who is allowing people into the
office. “Why aren’t there more counters?” she wants to know.
The guard, exasperated after a few minutes of argument, finally says, “Will you sit at the counter?”
“Yes,” she says. The fact that she is upset and has won a battle of words with the guard is somehow justification for her to barge in ahead of all those in the queue. No one protests. She emerges with two passes and smiles at her partner waiting outside.
Laxmi Lawns is a sea of white chairs that evening. There is one entrance for gold passes and another for the regular ones. Rahul and I are among the commoners and our section starts easily 50 metres from the stage.
There seem to be plenty of vacant chairs towards the front of our section, but this proves deceptive. Entire rows of chairs are being “reserved” by one or two representatives of families or groups of friends. We watch the show on the helpfully provided screens, but it is a joyless affair. Shreya Ghoshal’s attempts to get the audience to sing along or clap fizzle out pretty quickly.
In the interval, the MC announces Satish Magar’s arrival on stage to no response from the crowd around us. Magar mentions the passing of B G Deshmukh, former Union cabinet secretary and principal secretary to three prime ministers, an early friend of the Magarpatta City project, and a resident as well. The Pride of Magarpatta City award is posthumously awarded to him.
The audience around us seems completely indifferent: there is zero applause, most people are chatting or involved with their phones or eating the combo-meals being sold.
When this listlessness in the air is brought up it is commonly attributed to those who live here as tenants—60 per cent of all residents. They tend to be young and as KM says, “They treat the place like a hostel. Many tenants have never participated in any of the activities despite living here for a long time. Most people are bankrupt to a life outside work.”
A former resident of Magarpatta City, Shweta Agrawal, who herself works in the IT sector, says, “Software people tend to be a little one-dimensional. And Magarpatta has a lot of them.”
And something that most residents seem to ignore, independent of occupation or tenant status, is the walk-to-work, walk-to-shop vision of Magarpatta City. I had expected to see many bicycles in use, a perfect mode of transport for a place the size of Magarpatta City, but it is only children and support staff who are seen riding them.
“Initially, we hadn’t thought of providing parking in Destination Centre,” Satish Magar says. “We thought people would walk and use cycles. But it’s a big story to expect people to walk 1 km. It’s all part of the baggage... In a developing country owning a car is a matter of pride.”
The idea of home and office seem somewhat fluid to those who live and work in Magarpatta City. It is common to see residents everywhere—in restaurants, streets, the garden, leaving or entering their homes—with their office ID cards hanging from a lanyard or clipped to their belts.
Shweta, when she lived and worked here, was bothered by the fact that her office and home were so close: “I couldn’t relax. I’d feel I was in office even when I was at home.”
But the same aspect is perceived differently by others, for instance, Vijay Patil. “In some flats,” he tells me, eyes lighting up as he illustrates the convenience, “people can shout from their balcony to someone in their office.”
Almost everyone I speak to, though, agrees that Magarpatta City is an ideal place to bring up children. There is space to play in each apartment block, high quality sports facilities at an accessible distance, a wide range of cultural activities and classes offered for children. Cameras and security guards keep watch even while children play truant in the streets. Satish Magar points out a flipside to this idyll: “The children are in such a protected environment that it is difficult for them to survive outside.” He recounts the instance of a couple who moved to Noida from Magarpatta City. “Their small kid had to undergo psychiatric treatment. He would get paranoid about the traffic and cars honking and all that.”
The few times I leave Magarpatta City to go into Pune I feel not very unlike that kid. One evening at rush hour I wait at Swargate for an hour, unwilling to hurl myself into the hive of people at the door of bus after bus that pulls up. I end up taking an auto-rickshaw back. As I stay longer, the prospect of travelling outside, especially using public transport, comes to feels like an ordeal. I schedule back-to-back meetings when I foray into town, and am always relieved to return to the blank tranquility of Magarpatta City. Still, the two experiences from that month that I recall most vividly happened outside: one involves a beggar coming along while I eat vada-pav on the street, invoking a touch of moral dyspepsia; the other involves passing by a woman squatting on the footpath outside a hospital, curled into herself, crying soundlessly and with such abjection that no one dared look at her.
Even while I’m reluctant to leave Magarpatta City, I feel a mild sense of unease while staying here. The world somehow feels watered down, and maybe all this uniformity and convenience is something that takes getting used to. But there's also a hint of desolation about the place that may have something to do with its topography. It takes effort to find a visual landmark here. Walking down a street that has the same species of tree planted by the road at regular intervals gets monotonous quite quickly. On the road that surrounds Aditi Gardens, all the towers of Cybercity look the same, one junction is the same as another. There are the advertisements on the bus-stop-like benches and lamp-posts— Ferrero Rocher, Heels Dance Academy, Iken Braingym—but they too tend to recur. The security guards and landscapers usually blend into the background as generic uniforms. (One of the residents tells me that moving to Magarpatta City virtually finished off his hobby: street photography). More than the size of Magarpatta City, it is the featurelessness that creates an impression of vastness and isolation. Maybe that is the reason more people aren’t walking.
There may not be traffic-jams and beggars in Magarpatta City, but, as everyone keeps reminding me, the outside always comes in. Residents must interact with their domestic help. Ajay Patil might complain that there was no echo here of recent protests against corruption (though I did see a flat with a large “I’m With Anna” printout pasted on the front door), but there are other forms of political activism at work.
One evening I go to Destination Centre hoping to get dinner and find the whole complex closed. Sharad Pawar—at whose hands Magarpatta City was officially inaugurated—has been slapped in Delhi, and local supporters have ensured that what is happening in the rest of Pune happens in Magarpatta City too. There is obviously some degree of political mobilisation here, and according to Satish Magar, Magarpatta City has 6,000 voters, which is a quarter of its corporation ward’s electorate.
Magarpatta City has certainly galvanised the economy in its immediate environs as shop-owners and auto-drivers will readily acknowledge. It gives employment to at least as many people as it houses: support staff in its Cybercity, construction workers, PMS staff, security personnel, cooks and domestics for 7,500 households.
There is little doubt that Magarpatta City is a sign of things to come.
As Satish Magar says, “The Indian mindset has become global because they travel now. They’ve become demanding. Such communities will have to come up. It is also important because infrastructure has to be decentralised. You cannot any longer have the municipality do everything for you.”
The government is encouraging more integrated township projects, and since 2005 has allowed 100 per cent direct foreign investment in them. The number of integrated township projects currently underway in cities and towns in India must be in the hundreds. As the earliest in the current model of integrated townships, Magarpatta City might indicate the direction that middle-class life could take in India.
The cultural and sports events at Magarpatta City were started to encourage residents to get together. The annual cricket tournament has taken a new form in the latest edition that got underway in December 2011. It is now called the Magarpatta Premier Cricket League (MPCL) and is a month-long tournament played between 16 teams representing City neighbourhoods.
The teams were auctioned off to the highest bidders and are named after residential buildings or sponsors—LIC Life Savers Laburnum Park, Iken Sylvania Supersonics, Cosmos Panthers.
The team owners are allowed to attract sponsors in exchange for advertising on the event’s hoardings, posters and the players' clothing. The invitation to the inauguration also reached out to potential sponsors: “Advertisements in MPCL will provide immense benefits to team owners businesses by reaching directly up to 75,000 audiences in Magarpatta city, thru various media.”
A cricket enthusiast who plays for his office team reports trying to join his building’s team. He was asked if he had played at the Ranji level or for any club. He backed off, overawed, and was incredulous later when he heard that the league was being played with tennis balls.
Magarpatta City has 35,000 affluent residents corralled in a compound. Many more visit every day to work. This willing, relatively homogeneous market represents a seller’s dream. It is inevitable that access to such a market will be controlled, both for the economic opportunity it presents and for the residents' own comfort.
So, it is not surprising that Amita Rane or Ajay Patil would face obstacles in publicising their endeavours—if everyone were allowed to hand out flyers the residents would be inundated. But Amita and Ajay might also be justified in feeling that it should be easier for them to reach out to their own neighbourhood than it is for a pizza chain to thrust discount coupons into their mailboxes.
The constant pressure of commerce might end up stifling the kind of amateurism or semi-amateurism that imparts so much vibrancy to urban Indian neighbourhoods: the housewife who embroiders or teaches knitting, the man who teaches a few children music or maths, activities that are in the end as much about identity and community as they are about money.
Whatever the response from its inhabitants, the management of Magarpatta City has taken great pains over time to build the framework for a warm, communal life. But these efforts seem to be guided largely by one man’s—Satish Magar's—vision and persistence.
The team that built Magarpatta City is now using their experience to help with other integrated townships. The much larger Nanded City, again with land pooled by farmers, is almost ready and a couple of other similar projects are in the pipeline. Similar integrated township projects are underway at many other places across India, and while the scale and complexity of Magarpatta City will be exceeded, the human aspect will prove harder to replicate. Satish Magar likes to say that Magarpatta City is more than a real estate project. But many others that follow are likely to be just that.
Ultimately, a city’s character is determined by its inhabitants. Without self-awareness and conscious effort on their part, any affluent and uniform community risks turning into a kind of residential adjunct to a mall.
The business of daily life can be carried out largely through transactions with faceless uniforms – security guards, aisle assistants, waiters, administrative staff—leaving a person with the time, money and leisure to become the consummate consumer and little else. Is that necessarily a terrible thing?
In the first half of the nineteenth century the French social and political observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to study the effects of the new political and economic order taking hold there.
his classic Democracy in America he tries to foresee how despotism
of a mild sort—“it would degrade men without tormenting them”—might in future
preside over a homogeneous, individualistic society.
He envisions “an
innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to
procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each
of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest – his
children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for
the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he
touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself
alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to
have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary
power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to
watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and
mild. [. . . .] [I]t provides for their security, foresees and supplies their
necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns,
directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their
inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all
the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free
agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a
narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.”
One afternoon towards the end of my stay in Magarpatta City I venture out, cross the road and visit the enormous mall that has recently opened in another township. The staff continually greet visitors with an automatic namaste. Looking for lunch I enter one of the few restaurants already functioning. Inside is a carefully assembled dreamland: the tables are elaborately gaudy; the sides of stools have collages of Bollywood posters; serial lights twinkle on the wall alongside horn loudspeakers. A bicycle attached to an old gramophone player hangs on the wall.
The waiters labour to reply in English even when I speak in Hindi. There are fragments of meaningless Devanagari on the lighting fixtures, and elsewhere dialogue from Hindi films written in the Latin script. The TV shows a cricket match and Kishore Kumar sings Pal Pal from a non-decorative speaker somewhere.
The menu offers Chinese, Mexican, Punjabi. It is beyond me to separate the earnest from ironic, the kitsch from retro. And to think all this was plain farmland just 20 years ago.
(Some names have been changed on request.)