As the modern Indian city expands, the once-fertile farming lands on the periphery are quickly being devoured by real estate developers ready to erect concrete housing blocks with little thought given to the existing people, their livelihoods or the land itself. The farmers, many of whom have tilled the grounds for generations, hand over their sole holdings for large lump sums. While the prospect of quick money has the potential to help the farmers—whose survival hinges on seasonal rains and the outcome of the annual crop—many of them spend their newfound income without much future planning. The result often leaves the farming families in worse positions than before the development deal was made.
“The income from land sales was often spent by the sellers in all kinds of unproductive assets,” explains Satish Magar, mayor of Magarpatta City and author of a paper published in 2011, “Magarpatta Township: Farmers Planting Sustainable Cities.” “Since there was no productive diversion of the earnings from land sales, people who owned large acres of land of around 4-5 acres were ultimately often reduced to working as house maids, drivers or chowkidars [security].”
Magar, who grew up in a farming family in Pune with important political connections, is credited with being the visionary behind one of India’s most progressive and sustainably built towns. At the inner edge of the Pune Municipal Corporation limits, Magarpatta City stands as a model for both innovative and forward-looking city planning, as well as a thoughtful example of inclusive urban development. “All agrizones around urban areas are fragmented and sold in small pieces. There are no sanctioned roads or basic amenities, and the illegal constructions make matters worse. This leads to poor living conditions. This is a genuine problem for the people,” says Magar, who came up with the idea to pool the land of 120 farmer families, approximately 430 acres, and form their own development company, Magarpatta Township Development and Construction Company. Rather than see his neighbors lured by one-off developers, Magar made each of the original farmers a shareholder in the new company, in proportion to their land holding. The plan offered the farmers a fair alternative to a quick sell, as well as the opportunity to build something of their own, on their own terms. They–not the developers–would now benefit from their land holdings.
And what the farmers came up with for their city is rooted in their own humble beginnings: an environmentally-conscious development that gives top priority to sustainable materials, water resources and green spaces. Magar also understood that to build a city with these amenities, as well as most modern conveniences, he needed a plan with long-term vision. Magar and the farmers based Magarpatta City—named after Magar himself—on the following five objectives: to create a city with a clean and sustainable environment; good living standards; modern educational infrastructure; state-of-the-art working conditions; and reliable security. Today, the award-winning Magarpatta Township includes gardens, broad streets, eco-friendly buildings, a 250-bed modern hospital and security systems. A solar water heating system has been installed in every residential complex in Magarpatta, which saves 13,000 tons in carbon emissions annually. Also, the bricks and construction material were made using fly ash, which saved an additional 125,000 tons in emissions. The city’s refuse is segregated into bio-degradable (used for bio-compost) and non-degradable types at source.
Magarpatta is credited with “defining the concept of township” development in India. The Magarpatta Development Company is not only owned by the famers, but these original landowners have also been trained in various trades to run the city and to become entrepreneurs themselves. Some of these jobs include contracts for services such as construction, maintenance, transport and material suppliers—many of which turned into small businesses for the one-time agriculturalists.
“Doing away with middlemen has been an insurmountable challenge for the farmer anywhere in India. Middlemen/land sharks have been gnawing away at the farmer’s income. Large chunks of urban India is built on the deception — picking up land at dirt cheap rates from clueless farmers and selling them at a huge premium with little or no value added,” says an article in the Financial Express, “A Dream Town Worth Emulating.”
The Financial Model
For the city to run—given the high cost of so many eco-friendly upgrades—the Magarpatta Corporation also devised an innovative financial model to ensure its longevity, sustainability and a healthy return for the original owners. A December 2011 article said that 90% of the shareholders are turning over an annual income of at least INR40 lakh (~US$81,000).
The financial success of the city is due in part to a few novel ideas: one is the large IT park – Cybercity Magarpatta – which is among the biggest private parks in India and received an award for best IT infrastructure in the state of Maharashtra. Starting with two towers, the city has plans for 10 towers in total, amounting to four million square-feet. The IT Park is owned by the development corporation, and the rent collected for the office space will be a permanent source of income for the shareholders. While the large space is a risky endeavor, the opening of Cybercity coincided with the IT-BPO boom in the Pune area, so an adequate demand base stood ready to enter the property. Magarpatta City also has 12,500 residential units that house 50,000 people. Another interesting source of revenue for the city corporation is filming on-site for movies, an activity for which the city charges. Magarpatta generates average annual revenue of INR2 crore (~US$400,000) from filmmakers. Not surprisingly, the land value in the area has increased by over 900% in the last 11 years.
Is Magarpatta Replicable?
Many new developments dot the outskirts of India’s major metropolises. Some of these have even devised ways to bring rainwater harvesting, solar modules and other sustainable practices into the planning. Few, though, if any, have achieved what Magarpatta has: cooperative development among the original landholders. The result is new work and education opportunities, financial security and an environmentally progressive township for farmers and their families who were at risk of hazardous urbanization practices, which have come to define real estate ventures around India. In his article “Magarpatta’s ‘Inclusive’ Model,” Vinayak Chatterjee describes the city and his intrigue with the people behind it: “With glistening office blocks ringed around a central parkland, the radiating concentric circles have housing environs and residential communes with a ‘walk-to-work’ philosophy…Few would guess, looking at the state-of-the-art development, that a farming community achieved all this on their own.” In India, where development is challenging in the best of circumstances, Magarpatta stands as an example of the power of inclusive development to build solutions that meet local needs, simply by involving the people themselves.
Magarpatta City took over a decade to bring to completion and may have had a unique set of circumstances and people to make it successful. Thoughtfully carried out urban planning takes time and involves cooperative decision-making. Led by Satish Magar—who himself may be an anomaly among agriculturists for his urban education, social status, large land-holdings (his family holds 40% stake in the company) and also a trusted and respected member of the community—the concept of Magarpatta was brought to life with his perseverance and his ability to network among powerful politicians in the region. However, that does not mean that other such forward-looking inclusive development models cannot help soon-to-be-displaced farmers in the peri-urban zones of India’s metropolises. “The challenge for policy makers is to replicate such initiatives elsewhere in the country and even abroad,” says an article in the Economic Times. The potential exists for cooperative, ground-up development in other areas of the country, and Magarpatta has proven that the dreams and vision of laboring farmers can become an icon for city planning everywhere.