Big plans for new capital

The historical region of Amaravathi, chosen to be the capital city of the new Andhra Pradesh, resembles the terrain of 1960s Singapore. But the attempt is to replicate Amaravati as Singapore in the 21st century, a commercial island city-state on the Krishna riverfront. But this will be a mammoth task, given the innumerable hurdles that lie in wait for Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

The bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh into Telangana and residual Andhra during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime left many scars on Andhra Pradesh. The split State has a Rs. 17,000 crore budget deficit, with no capital city to call its own. Though the State machinery has been allowed to function from Hyderabad for 10 years after bifurcation, several departments have had to suffer step-motherly treatment in the new Telangana regime under its first Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao.

The bifurcation, which took place ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, deeply hurt Telugu pride, but political parties across the spectrum, in their constant attempts to be politically correct, have not revealed these wounds. The loss of Hyderabad, or Cyberabad as it was fondly called, in which Andhra Pradesh has high stakes, was another blow. It was especially painful for Mr. Naidu, whose efforts to conceive of and build Hyderabad into a world-class cyber city are well known.

While cash-rich Telangana is in celebratory mode on its first birthday, Mr. Naidu has resolved to have no festivities. Instead, there is going to be a Nava Nirmana Deeksha or focus on the building of a new State.

Mr. Naidu apparently wants to turn this adversity into an opportunity by planning a world-class capital on the banks of the river Krishna. About 7,068 sq. km have been earmarked for the capital region, of which 225 sq. km have been dedicated to Amaravathi, the capital city. In the words of Mr. Naidu, it will not just be “an administrative capital but an economic driver, a people’s capital, and an affordable city”.

Amaravathi, meaning ‘abode of the immortal’, is a small town in Guntur district, and was specifically chosen by Mr. Naidu to leverage on its rich 2,000-year-old heritage. It was the capital of the Satavahana kings between the 2nd and 3rd century BCE — they ruled most of the country from here — and also an important region for Buddhism.

Mr. Naidu wants the new capital to be Andhra Pradesh’s pride. “After the bifurcation, he wanted to develop Amaravathi into a world class city and a huge metropolis near Visakhapatnam, as a fitting counter [to Telangana],” said a leader closely associated with the Chief Minister.

The people’s response to the government’s intended pooling of around 33,000 acres needed for the capital has been positive, according to ministers and officials. The government was able to successfully convince farmers and pool almost half of the land along with ownership rights. The offer of annuity and developed residential and commercial land has been received well by several land owners.

“Consent letters [have been given] for 33,000 acres and [there has been] agreement on half of the land. This can be termed as the first achievement, first of its kind in the country. People are excited and showing tremendous interest,” said Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority Commissioner, N. Srikanth. That the Singapore government has kept its word in submitting a master plan within the stipulated time, as per the agreement, is another milestone according to the government. The foundation stone will be laid today and several programmes are to follow in the coming days.

Dissenting voices

However, all is not well — there are dissenting voices as well. The opposition is questioning the logic behind using such a huge stretch of agricultural land for building the capital, as this land is one of the green pastures of the State, and provides three kinds of crops. Questions have been raised on the fate of landless labourers and tenant farmers in the region. The whole exercise, the Opposition has said, is an attempt to marginalise farmers and distribute land to corporate entities. Doubts have been raised on the real intent of the government, with fingers pointed at government attempts to arm-twist farmers on land acquisition.

Adding to the confusion, people from other regions such as coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, which had capital expectations, are growing impatient with the new government’s excessive focus on the capital while ignoring the rest of the State. The government’s lacklustre approach in demanding special status category to Andhra Pradesh from its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has also surprised many observers. While leaders across party lines are busy making safe statements, the people have launched protests, demanding special status. For instance, Guntur-based Mamillapalli Sanjiva Rao braved the scorching sun and spent nearly 38 hours on a cell phone tower, threatening to commit suicide, to protest the delay in declaring Andhra Pradesh’s special status. In another case, Sai Krishna Kota, an assistant professor in Gudlavalleru Engineering College near Vijayawada, went on hunger strike for the same cause.

While the government is busy joining the dots to clear key infrastructure projects scheduled for completion by 2019, an appeal has been filed by Vijayawada-based Pandalaneni Srimannarayana that the entire region comes under Seismic Zone category-III and is therefore not fit for a capital. “Not just the seismic activity, the earmarked area is black cotton soil which is not suitable for 70-80 storied skyscrapers. That apart, the area is larger than that of the U.S. financial capital, New York. Is it necessary to build [the] capital here at the cost of farmers’ livelihood? We have abundant government land available elsewhere,” the appellant reasons.

Mr. Srimannarayana’s appeal is in the National Green Tribunal, and notices have been issued to the Union of India, Government of Andhra Pradesh, the Ministry of Forests and Environment, and the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA). The hearing is scheduled for July 27.

Where’s the money?

There is also concern over raising the funds to build the vast city. This could be another stumbling block for the government, which is currently struggling to pay employee salaries, a fact that came to light in February. A massive hike has been given to employees recently and is going to add to the salary bill. The investment needed for the capital is about Rs. 4 lakh crore, according to a rough estimate by the Chief Minister, but there is no concrete plan in place thus far about how this amount is going to be raised.

The government has indicated that most of the projects will be taken up through the public-private partnership mode. “These projects may not be viable. The Central Viability Gap Funding (CVGF) is needed and it is mostly unlikely in the present circumstances,” said a top official.

But an optimistic Mr. Naidu is pinning his hopes on global giants such as the Japan External Trade Organisation, the Japan Bank for International Co-operation, the Energy and Industrial Technology Development, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Singapore’s Tamasec Holdings, and Chinese entities to fund and build the capital.

Analysts are commenting about a lack of seriousness and a visible gap between theory and practice in the development of a split Andhra Pradesh. The obsession of the Chief Minister and the State departments with Hyderabad, and the stiff resistance from employees to shift to Vijayawada, the base capital, even a year after the bifurcation, citing a lack of facilities, are only adding to the woes of the new State.

This article erroneously referred to New York as the U.S. capital. It should have been U.S. financial capital. The error has been corrected.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 10:30:02 PM |

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