April 04, 2020
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Poona Expressway Town

Delhi is jaded, Mumbai hyperventilating. So head for Pune, the place that's arrived.

Poona Expressway Town
Poona Expressway Town
On a wind-swept weekend night, in an ear-deafening crescendo of guitars and drums, the Beast is back—and Pune's not getting worked up about it. "Are you f***ing doing well? Are you rocking tonight?" howls Paul 'The Beast' Di Anno of heavy-metal act Iron Maiden to a headbanging throng of Pune-ites on the grounds of the Corinthian, the city's new hilltop club. "Yeah, yeah, yeah!!!" the delirious youngsters scream back at the ghoulish rocker. It's a dusty, dirty night—Di Anno's jokes are as profane as they can get, the music's nasty metal, but Pune doesn't mind this monster's ball one bit. There's no moral police hovering around to nix this gig—like they do in more fashionable Mumbai, 170 km away. Same night, some distance away in Koregaon Park, it's a much more genteel setting at the opening of an Iranian cafe where guests gorge on lamb kebabs, smoke hookahs and swing easily to a portly crooner belting out jazz standards. "Tell you what," says Bijoy Guha, a corporate chief executive, sipping his red wine. "Pune is the rare city that lives and lets live. It's a syncretic, cool, happening city today."

If you're tired of the spin on Bangalore and Hyderabad as India's jiving boomtowns, head west, take the smooth Mumbai-Pune expressway, and get your kicks in Pune. So how did Pune get her groove from a dowdy, salubrious, pensioners' heaven and a boring heavy engineering haven? You find that the invasion of geeks and foreign students, the cutting-edge technologies honed in its thought shops, a thriving cultural life and a cosmopolitan lifestyle have turned the sedate Maharashtrian city into India's newest boomtown. Pune, according to research firm Indicus Analyticus, is already one of India's top ten "city markets" where affluence levels are much higher than urban centres with similar populations—some four million live in this 240 sq km town ringed by the Sahyadri hills. Commercial bank deposits, petrol consumption and telephone connections, surefire indicators of a city's prosperity, have been climbing at a steady clip in recent years. "Pune's become a boom city," says Arun Firodia, chairman of the city-based two-wheeler maker, Kinetic Engineering.

Forget for a moment the 30 hamlets that spawned the city a little over 1,000 years ago, the proud 17th century Maratha capital, the defence base, the controversial Osho commune, even the tony Mercedes-Benz facility. New Pune is much much more than that. Last year, it registered a phenomenal 75 per cent growth in IT-enabled services, higher than Mumbai. The invasion of the geeks—some 40,000 of them today, and the number is expected to double this year—has seen software turnover rise to Rs 3,000 crore. The district entertainment tax office received 41 applications for building cineplexes within days of being allowed to do so. (The four-screen Inox is already a trendy hangout.) Showy malls are altering the landscape and, according to Lalit Kumar Jain, who is promoting a Rs 90 crore, 1 lakh sq ft mall on Bund Garden Road, "Pune has the potential to absorb at least 20 such malls."

Real estate is on a spiral and the biggies are flocking: Godrej Properties alone is investing Rs 100 crore in developing homes. And the quality of healthcare is to die for: the Aditya Birla Foundation is putting up a Rs 250-crore, 400-bed hospital at Chinchwad; Infosys Foundation's superspeciality building is coming up at Sassoon Hospital; and the multi-crore Deenanath Mangeshkar Memorial Hospital is up and running. "Pune has truly arrived," says city historian Samita Gupta.

Is it any surprise then that Pune produces more two-wheelers than any place on earth, is home to India's first fully indigenous car facility, the city where N.R. Narayanamurthy began Infosys from a small apartment, has some of India's best defence research facilities, the country's largest private university in the shape of Symbiosis and more foreign students than anywhere else in India? From a quiet getaway for Mumbai's stressed-out celebrities, it's now home to many of them: Lata Mangeshkar lives here and only goes to Mumbai if there's a recording, M.F. Husain has an apartment, Amol Palekar and Deven Verma have moved in, and R.K. Laxman has bought a home, triggering so much excitement that the Pune edition of the Times of India carries a daily cartoon by him on the top of the front page with a proud shoutout, 'by Pune's own Laxman'.

The city's also getting a chutzpah and attitude far removed from the traditionally austere and proud ethos of the Marathas. Unlike flashy and nouveau Delhi or hyperventilating Mumbai, Pune wears its attitude easily. You see it in the pretty girls who crowd its coffee bars, jostle for room in Elbow Room, the city's hippest pub, and dance the night away to a remix of, believe it or not, Doobie Brothers' Long Train Running at Club Polaris, a funky cavernous discotheque. The past is present, and the present is future in Pune. "It's a westernised city, but it's also unmistakably Indian," says Patrick Martin, a German doing his junior college here. You catch a glimpse of Pune's newfound pluck on the tee of a Ferguson College student: "Feet on the ground, but always above you."

There's ample evidence of that these days. Walk into the lab-turned-offices of astrophysicist S. Ananthakrishnan, who looks after 30 gigantic stainless steel mesh radio telescopes, each the size of a football field, with a frequency range unmatched anywhere in the world, over a 25-km stretch in Narayangaon. A project for the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, the telescopes opened for use last year, and since then half of the observation time has been snagged by foreign institutions.

Ananthakrishnan travelled all over India to put up these state-of-the-art telescopes and finally, based on astronomical considerations, zeroed in on Pune and Indore as good sites. "But we also needed a place with high literacy, bright science students and a good pool of scientists, programmers, software engineers. When we looked for such people in Indore, I was appalled. So we came to Pune!" He wasn't proved wrong: the telescopes have triggered off so much interest that 5,000 children from the neighbourhood, mostly villages, stand in orderly queues to see and find out more about astronomy.

Pop into Jayant Vishnu Narlikar's Charles Correa-designed Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the only one of its kind in the world: a research institute with 15 scientists, a research centre and a workshop school with a cutting-edge computer centre and digital library connected to 80 universities around the world. Narlikar, a Kolhapur-born, Benares-bred and Cambridge-educated scientist, moved to Pune from Mumbai in 1989, and is happy to be running an institute whose sylvan campus boasts of three apple plants from Isaac Newton's garden in Woolsthorpe". It had to be here," says Narlikar. "The city has such a long tradition in education."

That it always was. Today Pune is leveraging its strengths as a Knowledge City like never before, fuelled by the invasion of foreign and expat students from all over India. This has created an exciting melting pot and given the city its youthful zing. The 280,000-student, 35-college, 46-department-strong Pune University, one of ugc's centres of excellence, alone had 6,000 foreign students from 62 countries paying $550 to get in and contributing an astonishing Rs 3 crore in forex to its coffers last year. In 2001-2002, 1,200 new foreign students enrolled, up from 428 in 2000-2001.It's an up-with-the-times university with student exchange programmes with 32 universities around the world. And at the snazzily-designed United Mahindra World College, one of the nine colleges of its kind in the world where 200 students, half of them foreign, come from 65 countries, 17-year-old Joseph Howlett, from Hertfordshire, England, exults: "Who wants to go to England and do boring A-levels in bad weather when you can be on top of a hill with nice weather, mix with students from around the world with more opportunities, and have good food?" Howlett's college, a clay roof-tiled stone and poured concrete structure nestling in the Sahyadris, was one of the 10 chosen buildings from 147 around the world which won the Business Week Architectural Record Awards last year.

Christopher Charles Benninger, the Harvard-educated American architect who designed the college, came down to Ahmedabad in 1968 on a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Pune eight years later. Today, he runs one of the most respected building design shops in India and is glad he stayed on. "Pune is now a base for a lot of bright people. It's an intellectual place like Boston, cultured and genteel." If Di Anno's noise-riot draws kids to the Corinthian, a full house—and that's 1,200 people!—turn up at four in the morning on Diwali to hear Kishori Amonkar sing at the Balgandharva Rangmandir. Amol Palekar and Nana Patekar raised Rs 16 lakh recently, reciting poems of Marathi poet N.D. Mahanor in two back-to-back single-day performances at a 600-seater city auditorium. The money is going to part-fund the conversion of a 1.6 km stretch in the heart of Pune into a pedestrians-only zone in a city which is fast losing its sidewalks to myopic city fathers.

"There was an old saying," says Palekar, "that Pune-ites wore trousers without pockets, that they were stingy. No longer. They spend a lot and spend happily on a good cause." That makes it an ideal place for a feisty woman like Qaneez Sukhrani, who works in the air cargo industry during her office hours, and fights recalcitrant government officials outside it. Sukhrani was the first in India to win two Right to Information cases. "I get a lot of time to do my activism here after work," says the bubbly Sukhrani, who moved from Mumbai. "A lot of good, efficient people have migrated to Pune. People are more conscious." So when a bus driver molested a school-going girl a few months ago, the citizens pressured the municipality to make women drivers compulsory for schoolbuses.

But the happy hey-we-got-the-town-rocking expat talk clouds the fact that Pune's growth and newfound energy is not being driven by them alone. Talk to J.M. Thatte, general manager of the 158-acre, Rs 1,700-crore state-of-the-art Indica car plant, India's first 100 per cent homegrown facility which cranks out 300 cars a day thanks to its 2,600 locally hired employees. "The local workers are very hard-working, disciplined, pack a lot of stamina and are dexterous with instruments," says Thatte.

So don't undermine Pune's reputation as what Naushad Forbes, chairman of cii, Pune zone, describes as a "mechanical engineering city": the largest truck manufacturer, the biggest pump maker, one of the biggest two-wheeler companies and the world's largest forging unit are all based here. Heavy engineering is also out of the funk and purring along nicely now—most of the companies are either upping production or announcing new projects."The future is rosy in both the old and new economies," says Forbes.

Yes, but not all is right in Pune. Its runaway growth has clogged its roads and made it the state's most polluted city; there are 12 lakh vehicles on its roads, up three times since 1990. Its two rivers, Mutha and Mula, have turned into open sewers.Power has suddenly turned scarce: some areas have three-hour outages three times a week. And then there's the look. Bemoans Benninger: "It's deteriorating. The new buildings are all glitzy, packaged glass envelopes in oily colours." Trees, sidewalks, fountains and riverbeds are being removed or encroached upon.

Then there are the ubiquitous scams. The latest one raising the hackles of the citizenry is what is called the "hillslope scam": 38 villages in the hills were added to the city development plan and when citizens raised Cain, only 15 were finally added to append another 116 sq km to Pune. Still, citizens like Jaymala Diddee, a geographer, continue to raise a stink, saying the invasion of the hills is the work of a nefarious builder-politician nexus, especially one prominent, rich and flashy type who treats the city as his own fief. "Having messed up Mumbai, these builders are now trying to destroy Pune," she says. There's one more creeping worry: earlier this year, Shiv Sena workers raised a clamour about Pune's "sons of soil being discriminated against", when Kirloskar Cummins laid off some employees. But the bad tidings are not sapping Pune's energy and joie de vivre. Not yet, anyway.

Soutik Biswas in Pune with Harsh Kabra

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