Capital project: The making of Amaravati

Chandrababu Naidu wants to go down in history as the man who fashioned a swanky,world-class city for his people. Can the Andhra Pradesh CM achieve his dream?

June 25, 2016 01:57 am | Updated December 31, 2016 12:12 pm IST

Protests:  “Environmentalists have called Amaravati a disaster in the making, since it is being built on a highly flood-prone and seismic zone." A pond in Thullur village.

Protests: “Environmentalists have called Amaravati a disaster in the making, since it is being built on a highly flood-prone and seismic zone." A pond in Thullur village.

The festive air which announces the onset of monsoon is missing here. For the second consecutive year, farmers of Uddandarayunipalem, Lingayapalem and Thalayapalem have not celebrated Eruvaka, the festival where farmers symbolically sow nine different seeds ( navadanya ), decorate their bulls and ploughs, and pray for a good harvest. The fields that should have been dotted with banana and sugarcane plantations, vegetables and flowers are lying fallow. All this, for a reason. The three villages will make up the core area of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s audacious dream — Amaravati, a spanking new capital for the State.

Politics of land acquisition The State government has pooled 33,000 acres of land from farmers of 29 villages, including the aforementioned three. “We made them partners in the capital project under the Land Pooling Scheme (LPS) by returning developed plots of 1,000 sq. yards for residential use and 250 sq. yards and 400 sq. yards for commercial use for farmers of dry and wet lands respectively [for every acre taken away],” says Mr. Naidu. The government even threw in an annuity of Rs.40,000 for 10 years for the early birds.

Thullur, the village first chosen for locating the core capital only for the government to later pick Mandadam and Uddandarayunipalem, is evidently among the earliest beneficiaries. Ninety per cent of the residents today live in double-storeyed buildings, in what was once a dusty hamlet. More than half of the households own a car. Three liquor shops have come up where there were none a year ago. “We are happy. The capital project has changed our lives — and lifestyle,” says Ramesh, a farmer, as he washes his gleaming new Maruti Alto. He has parted with six acres under the LPS and bought four acres near Eluru in West Godavari district.

Critics have called the LPS a deception to escape from stringent provisions of the Land Acquisition Act. Mr. Naidu allegedly wooed the influential large farmers of the Kamma community, to which he belongs, to part with their lands, leaving hardly any choice for the small and marginal farmers. There were threats to invoke the Land Acquisition Act and forcibly take away the land, which would have put farm owners at tremendous loss as they would have just got compensation for land based on government rates. Activists Medha Patkar and M.G. Devasahayam of the National Alliance of People’s Movements have accused the State government of using the LPS, “meant to be voluntary”, to forcefully acquire land. Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, calls the scheme “land fooling”. “What the government did was to take away large chunks of fertile land from farmers and pass them on to the corporates in highly questionable deals,” he alleges.

A concerted effort to downplay the downside is also on display as the government steamrollers ahead swallowing 33,000 acres of agriculture. Picture this: in village after village, the vast expanse of fertile land on the Krishna river bank has nothing raised on it. Many of the 22,000 farmers who have given away farming land in these 29 villages under the LPS have no clue what the future holds for them barring the big farmers who have made a killing from the scheme. Among the worst hit are thousands of agriculture labourers, dependent on farms for livelihood. The government is only willing to offer them a pension of Rs.2,500 a month. Tenant farmers do not figure in the scheme of things at all as they neither own any land to get developed plots nor do they want to get bracketed as labourers. Yet the government has been claiming that there will be no displacement and that the LPS has ensured a “win-win” situation.

Looking forward, looking back The Chief Minister’s chosen site for the proposed new capital harks back to a revered past. Barely 25 km away from the core area of the in-the-works capital are the ruins of the ancient town of Amaravati, capital of the Satavahanas who ruled in the second century BC. Statues from the Amaravati Mahachaitya, one of the biggest Buddhist stupas in Andhra Pradesh, are now star exhibits at the British Museum in London, and Mr. Naidu has been lobbying hard to get some of these back to be displayed at the existing museum here to leverage the rich history in promoting a “futuristic” Amaravati.

His choice has quite expectedly resulted in a real estate boom which threatens to swallow up its more renowned historical cousin. “Prices of land around Amaravati have soared — in some cases four times — following Mr. Naidu’s announcement. We get inquiries from people in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru who want to invest,” says Kondaveeti Srinivas, a real estate agent for two years now.

Old houses in Amaravati. Photo: V. Raju

But on the ground, at Uddandarayunipalem, where the glitzy, ‘smart’ city will take shape, it’ll take a while for construction to commence. But a 3D model placed in the middle of the barren expanse, closely guarded by a police picket, gives a glimpse of Mr. Naidu’s dream: skyscrapers, roads, railway lines, flyovers and landmarks such as the Assembly, Raj Bhavan, High Court and Secretariat.

“I want it to be a world-class, grand and smart city. The vision for a city should be for 100 or even 1,000 years. You need to think big. The concept of a city has changed… I am not only competing with centuries-old Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai but also foreign cities. My capital city should be a cut above them to be a good investment destination,” Mr. Naidu had told The Hindu in a recent interview on completion of two years in office, when asked why he had gone in for 33,000 acres.

The Chief Minister is personally supervising the planning, design and execution of works and narrates with a flourish the beauty of his upcoming city to any visitor who cares to listen. He holds weekly meetings with his team comprising the Municipal Administration and Urban Development Ministry and Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRD) commissioner.

Plotting the ‘smart’ plan Woven around the theme of blue of the Krishna river and green of the pastoral landscape, the capital city is planned to spread over a 217.23-sq.-km area in Guntur district while the metropolitan capital region spans 7,420 sq. km encompassing large parts of Guntur and Krishna districts.

Mr. Naidu’s team scoured Singapore, Japan and China for inspiration and gave the core capital master plan work to a Singapore firm Surbana Jurong Private Limited, and the design to Japanese company Maki and Associates’ for the 16.9-sq.-km core capital straddling Uddandarayunipalem (where Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the capital on October 22, 2015), Lingayapalem and Thalayapalem. Amaravati is being envisaged as “a smart, green, sustainable city”, with zones consisting of a central business district, residential areas, green zones and waterbodies.

The blueprint for the core area has four distinct regions: Amaravati Government Core comprising Assembly, Secretariat, High Court and Raj Bhavan; the downtown area that has a central boulevard, convention centre and recreation facilities; the city gateway; and a 30-km-long waterfront. It also has provision for a piazza with two iconic towers and a garden much bigger than the Brindavan in Karnataka. “It is simple in its structure and sustainable,” says K.T. Ravindran, architect, urban planner and conservationist, who was part of the jury that selected Maki and Associates’ design.

There is scepticism about how much of these would actually transform into reality, given the completion deadline of 2018 and the projected cost of Rs.20,000 crore for the core capital area alone. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre has committed assistance of Rs.1,500 crore, which has led to some heartburn as Mr. Naidu expected more from the TDP’s ally. The YSR Congress party has also expressed reservations about resource mobilisation given that the State has inherited a revenue deficit of Rs.16,000 crore, doubts that heightened after the APCRDA postponed the allotment of developed plots at Nelapadu scheduled for June 20 due to “heavy rains”. But Mr. Naidu says he will tap multilateral agencies for funds. The idea behind the ambitious deadline is obvious: the Chief Minister wants to showcase at least parts of the core capital to the people when he seeks their mandate in the next Assembly elections in 2019.

Birth pangs Environmentalists have called Amaravati a disaster in the making, since it is being built on a highly flood-prone and seismic zone. What’s more, the State government has been lobbying with the Centre for de-notification of 19,000 acres of forest area for inclusion in the capital region. Former Union Energy Secretary E.A.S. Sarma has shot off a letter to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change while a petition by another environmentalist is pending before the National Green Tribunal. APCRDA Commissioner N. Srikant, however, says the latest building technology would take care of such issues. Mr. Ravindran too says natural disasters can be tackled with proper hydrological engineering plans: “The key is not to resist water but work with it.”

With the fine-tuning of the master plan and design for the city still on, the government has gone ahead with the building of the transitional Secretariat at Velagapudi, 3 km away from Uddandarayunipalem where the permanent building would come up. This has kicked up another row. Many wondered why Rs.180 crore was being spent on a temporary office complex till the government explained that the buildings would be subsequently used to house offices of heads of departments or given on lease to shopping malls.

It is to these five blocks of ground-plus-one buildings that 2,000 of the 11,000 government employees from the Andhra Pradesh Secretariat in Hyderabad would have to shift by June 27, as per government orders. Many employees are reluctant to move out of Hyderabad, yet in anticipation of their arrival rents in Vijayawada and Guntur have soared and even in Velagapudi and surrounding villages people are adding floors and opening corner shops.

As the June 27 deadline draws closer, employees’ union leaders have appealed to the government to defer the shifting. “All we want is provision of basic amenities. We have appealed to the Chief Minister to relax the deadline to August,” says P. Ashok Babu, president of the Andhra Pradesh Non Gazetted Officers’ Association. Mr. Naidu says people have to sacrifice a bit. “In the 1950s when Andhra [Pradesh] got separated from the composite Madras State, Kurnool became the capital and the administration was run from tents,” he says. On June 2, 2014, when Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh as India’s 29th State, the understanding was that Hyderabad would be the shared capital for 10 years. Sensing the opportunity to stamp his legacy, Mr. Naidu announced Amaravati to the world ten months after the State’s bifurcation. More than a year has elapsed since, and Rome was not built in a day. But try telling that to a man in a hurry.

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