d6ae69127f652b47ab64f742229d1e03-2At a dinner table following a wedding in Southern California some six months ago, the conversation begins with a round of introductions.

A “Hi” and a “What do you do,” both mundane social starters with expectations of yawn-generating answers: “I’m a hardware engineer.” “I teach at a public school.” “Uh, I’m a product manager at HP.” Until finally it’s the turn of an aloof young man who (in the words of a gregarious lady at the table) might easily pass off for Bollywood actor Akshay Khanna’s older brother, certainly when one sees the receding hairline.

In clipped tones and obviously with the spit and polish of his years in the Army Cantonment areas in India and Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton High School, the 38-year-old gentleman apparently offers, “Hi, I’m Sabeer and I’m building a city in India.” See how Sabeer Bhatia’s new line, Nanocity, tends to be a conversation stopper at any round table? Alas, it’s one that might make even Alexander the Great feel small.

Bright Ideas, Big City

Some 200 miles to the west of where Nanocity will rise are the ruins of the once perfectly planned Mohen-jo-daro, the ancient Indus Valley metropolis. But unlike the 5000-year-old town, Nanocity will be prepped for Wifi, 24/7 electronically accessible traffic information, and a world-class golf resort.

No, Nanocity will not have communal baths (unless you count 24-hour gyms with saunas).

At 11,000 acres, Nanocity, 16 miles southeast of Chandigarh (Bhatia’s birthplace), will be half the size of San Francisco. “A drive around Nanocity will be about 24 miles,” says Bhatia, whipping through his presentation of “the master plan” that might have flummoxed Georges Haussmann in 1852 when he was commissioned by Napoleon III to rebuild a dank and dark Paris into the “city of light” that we drool over today.

d6ae69127f652b47ab64f742229d1e03-4Isn’t he architecting just another IT Park along the lines of Tidel Park in Chennai? Bhatia bristles at the accusation. He dismisses IT Parks as the design philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. “People commute everyday from their homes to work and then add to the pollution. Ultimately it ends up as the suburban sprawl we see in the United States where you’re dependent on the automobile. That is why 3 percent of the world’s population is consuming 25 percent of the world’s energy resources. If the rest of the world develops like us, we won’t have a planet left to inhabit.”

And so Bhatia drives to weave IT campuses, other industries, and educational institutions into the fabric of everyday living. People, he believes, need more time for productive work and active play. Imagine an organic, utopian city that will seamlessly blend green and concrete, allowing workers to walk to work, mosey on over to a coffee-shop, saunter home, and still have plenty of time for rest and recreation.

“A very good example of this is the Franklin Templeton office in San Mateo, Calif., around Hillsdale Boulevard.” Bhatia finds that those who work at this office just cross the road to step into an array of fine restaurants, coffee shops, a dry cleaning store, and a Whole Foods grocery store. A row of apartment complexes pokes into the sky right behind the offices offering tennis courts, swimming pools, recreation centers, and fitness clubs. “The people who work at Franklin Templeton and live around there love it.”

City Guy With a Hotmail Attitude

The sales pitch Bhatia made to the Indian government was simple: “India’s two biggest problems are poor infrastructure and lack of education. And somehow, indirectly, I’m going to address those two in Nanocity.” Bhatia has been able to rev up his project—from idea to launch—in just a year and two months. He has raised most of the $300 million needed for land acquisition. He projects that the second phase of the project (infrastructure investment) will run about $1 billion.

Clearly, his Hotmail gravitas swayed the Indian bureaucracy. But he believes his “willingness to walk away from the project” helped nail down the nod of consent—from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Haryana government, and many in between. “There was a debate in the local cabinet and several bureaucrats said that you can’t give anyone uncontrolled development rights. When I heard that, I said, ‘You know what? If that’s what you want to do, you can have the project. You can keep everything!’”

Bhatia’s “all or nothing” stance on his pet project convinced government officials that he was not just another unscrupulous real estate developer intent on making a fast buck. So now he’s being courted by other Indian states to build a sister city to Nanocity. “I want to leave a legacy behind for people and maybe an example for the development of the rest of the country.”

Some wonder how this man dared dream of doing what even purebred Indian entrepreneurs like Infosys’s N.R. Narayana Murthy have not been able to accomplish in cities like Bangalore. But Bhatia shrugs off the skeptics. “Maybe I’m young and stupid so I do not much care?” Or perhaps, he muses, it’s because he’s an outsider.

In mid-May, the last document was signed generating the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) between the Haryana State Infrastructure and Industrial Development Corporation (HSIIDC) and Bhatia’s company. Nanoworks Developers is now set to create “a green city, a flexible city, a ‘complexcity’—one that incorporates all types of lifestyles and an ecologically sustainable design today and in the future.”

d6ae69127f652b47ab64f742229d1e03-5Bhatia, to begin with, enlisted the help of eight professors and 12 students from UC Berkeley who are experts in various fields such as city and regional planning, landscape architecture, environmental planning, urban design, and social engineering to study the physical layout and led the team to the site. Over the semester, the team would pore over municipal and environmental logistics such as the nearest sources of water, year-round climate in the region, and current road accesses into the villages that dot the land.

“It’s Got Everything” (But No Bhelpuri Stand?)

Bhatia’s spiel is an eye-opener on how most cities in the world expand inorganically and, often, unmanageably. A lot of forethought is going into Nanocity simply to avoid the pitfalls of “bandaid” growth happening around the world and certainly in India.

During his presentation, Bhatia pulls up a view of the Nanocity site from Google Earth. A thumb-shaped pocket of land bound by two seasonal rivers pops up. Sparsely populated, this land is currently deemed infertile and economically backward by the Haryana government with prices at about 2 or 3 lakh rupees per acre. He points out the physical features of the land, showing dirt tracks that go into villages, tracks hardly traversable by more than one car. A few clicks later, we’re witness to a metropolis unlike any other India has seen: with a grid network of roads, public transportation corridors, a Nano quarter with IT industries, a Bio quarter with a green space for biological and pharmaceutical research, a university quarter, different types of residences, schools, walking trails all around the city, public parks within a quarter-mile vicinity of all residences, dedicated lane buses running on non-polluting compressed natural gas, a golf course and an airport, of course.

“It’s got everything,” he beams, punching at the keys, rattling off statistics, making his case about intuitive eco-friendly transportation in Nanocity: color-coded buses, wheelchair access, level-boarding, transit terminals, electronic cards. “This bus system will be modeled after Curitiba.” A model town in Brazil, Curitiba is home to a famous Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system which is a metro-like system with dedicated lanes, and is touted to have one of the most heavily used—yet low-cost—transit systems in the world. “There’s not a single stop which is not a quarter mile distance from any residential neighborhood in Nanocity according to this plan,” he says.

At 45 people per acre, Nanocity—expected to be ready in 2012—will be built to house half a million people. Vertical construction has its advantages, Bhatia clatters on, spitting density of population figures faster than a search engine. (It figures—this number cruncher was the only one in the world who passed Caltech’s math “entrance” exam which won him a seat at Caltech mid-way through a B.E. at Pilani). Nanocity is expected to hold more people per acre than Delhi (38) or Chandigarh (32) but much less than Manhattan (71), Barcelona (67), or Mumbai (101).

For Bhatia, this undertaking will be a testing ground for a gamut of pro-environment schemes. Water treatment plants at Nanocity will employ the patented Living Machine technology, in which a series of tanks—teeming with live plants, trees, grasses, and algae; koi and goldfish; tiny freshwater shrimp, snails, and a diversity of microorganisms and bacteria—convert murky water to pure, crystal-clear drinking water which is chemical and odor-free.

Nanocity will also implement environmentally friendly climate resistance techniques to minimize the need for constant air-conditioning such as mandatory sun shading alongside buildings, night ventilation, direct evaporative cooling and cross ventilation. Bhatia says he and his crew struggled with potential names for their new city but the choice became obvious as they looked at what the next substrate of computing would be: Nanotechnology. So he hopes to exploit nanotechnology in power generation as in solar panels and in building materials such as roads that are self-cleaning and coated with nanoparticulate matter.

Bhatia wants to avoid the pitfalls that come with massive construction projects in India—the indifference often shown by the government to those who do the actual hard labor of “building.” Ten years after a construction, builders don’t evacuate their temporary shanties, guaranteeing slums in a city. He plans, therefore, to begin with the builder’s village, low-cost housing for builders with access to good water, electricity, and education for the children. He feels this is the least he can do. “If you create an environment of equitable wealth distribution from the very beginning, nobody feels disenfranchised.”

d6ae69127f652b47ab64f742229d1e03-3Bhatia’s other objective in building Nanocity is to reach primary education to children in villages where schools are dysfunctional because of teacher absenteeism. His dream is to have every class in Nanocity be recorded and put on the Internet. “It’s easier to build a million virtual classrooms than to build physical schools. If India has to grow, it has to provide primary education to these 100 million children today.”

But surely we can’t take the India out of India? Wouldn’t Nanocity be a sterile India, stripped of the stripes and the spots that make India insane and sane at the same time? “Oh, no, I don’t want to change the culture of the place,” Bhatia promises. “But there are ways to provide local culture in a proper way. Just like New York where you get everything in the street corners but it’s all done in an organized fashion and in a clean, hygienic way.” So, rest assured, Nanocity may offer bhelpuri and ganna juice in eco-friendly twine-sewn, dried lotus leaves and reusable coconut shells at a wooden stall outside Starbucks.

Bhatia’s head is spinning with ideas. He is, he believes, once again on to The Big Idea a decade after Hotmail. Nineteen VCs rejected Hotmail. “But the idea was so good, I’d have gone to 1900 VCs to sell it.”

Nanocity is a complex (pun mostly unintended) evolution of Bhatia’s idea—to build an educational institution near Chandigarh similar to Stanford. Along the way, however, his vision turned grander still. Like King Alexander who dreamt of the world’s largest library in Alexandria as a tribute to scholarship, Bhatia hopes that Nanocity will be a model for all: “I want this to be a city that fuels the economic growth not just of India, but of the world.”

By the way, Bhatia doesn’t think it’s fair to be compared to visionaries like the emperors Alexander and Ashoka. “They were kings, they had unparalleled control. I’m not a king, I’m just a human being. I have to work with the system. They had unlimited resources. I don’t!” he admits with a regal grin and settles deeper into his ergonomic throne, his eyes fixated on his diminutive Vaio TX, his mind already faraway, frenziedly building wireless castles in the air defining Nanocity.

Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer in Saratoga, Calif.

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