A divided State’s capital conundrum

An under-construction road in Nelapadu village in Amaravati, with the temporary High Court in the backdropV. RajuV RAJU

An under-construction road in Nelapadu village in Amaravati, with the temporary High Court in the backdropV. RajuV RAJU  

After 5 years of planning on using 33,000 acres of pooled land for an unfinished mega capital, Andhra Pradesh is now exploring newer options. Appaji Reddem recounts the promises and realities of Amaravati, and the impact the new government’s three-capital proposal has had on the region’s farmers

The Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) government’s three-capital proposal has stirred a hornet’s nest and rattled the 25,000-odd farmers who parted with their land, totalling more than 33,000 acres, for a world-class ‘Amaravati capital city’.

Speaking on December 16, the last day of the Legislative Assembly’s winter session, Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy said the idea of one flamboyant capital with nine cities, as mooted by his predecessor N. Chandrababu Naidu, was not financially viable and the State could instead have three capitals, which could enable decentralised development. “Visakhapatnam may be the executive capital; Amaravati the legislative capital; and we may have High Court in Kurnool,” he said. He said a mega capital, as conceptualised by Mr. Naidu, would require an investment of over Rs. 1 lakh crore which neither the State nor the Central government could afford. “The past (Telugu Desam Party) government spent Rs. 5,800 crore in five years. The money was sourced through Central funding, Amaravati Bonds and other sources and we are paying a Rs. 7,000-crore annual interest on that,” claimed Mr. Reddy.

In the last ten days, many villages in Amaravati have witnessed protests and rallies by farmers over the government’s suggestion to shift the Secretariat and High Court out of Amaravati. On the other hand, the atmosphere in the districts in North-Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema has been one of jubilation, as the people there feel that they are finally getting their due.

The insecurities of the Amaravati farmers have their roots in certain unkept promises of the previous government. Owing to multiple issues, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government’s ‘capital efforts’ did not progress beyond building temporary structures of the Assembly, the Secretariat, the High Court and permanent residential apartments for bureaucrats and other government staff . The TDP’s humiliating loss to Mr. Reddy’s YSR Congress Party in the 2019 Assembly elections left the farmers high and dry. Five years since they parted with the lands after being promised the heaven, the farmers now stare at uncertainty. What was once touted to be a world-class capital city now presents a disappointing picture.

Multiple factors have contributed to Amaravati’s slow growth. One, the Naidu government went against the Sivaramakrishnan Committee’s Report. Two, it picked multiple partners for planning and made frequent changes to the plans. Three, there was a delay in the World Bank loan process. Four, firms from Singapore did not show enough interest in the ‘Start-up Area’ project two-and-a-half years after they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government.

Following the bifurcation in 2014, the A.P. government pooled in over 33,000 acres of land from farmers in 29 villages of the Amaravati region, promising a world-class mega capital. It was planned that Amaravati would have nine other ‘cities’, including a ‘knowledge city’ a ‘government city’ and a ‘justice city’. The exercise was initiated to develop the region and pass on the benefits of the development to the farmers who parted with their land.

The many woes of farmers

Farmers were promised a variety of benefits, including rent of up to Rs. 50,000 per acre for 10 years; jobs for family members; reimbursement of children’s education fees; residential and commercial plots; all major infrastructure facilities like roads, power-lines and drains; and free health cards. However, most farmers complain that the promises were not kept.

Sudharani Boyapati, a farmer from the Krishnayapalem village, regrets not following her instincts while giving away her one-acre land for a capital. While most farmers of her village were willing to part with their land, Boyapati made news by strongly resisting the land-pooling exercise. Though she ultimately had to yield to pressure from the police, revenue and peer groups, she remained sceptical of the government’s development promises. Speaking to The Hindu , tears in her eyes, she says: “Today, I feel like crying out loud to my heart’s content for my past mistakes. The day I gave away my land was the saddest day of my life. The doubts I raised five years ago have come true today. The undeveloped plots that government gave in return for our land are less valuable compared to the price of our fertile agricultural land.”

Prior to the pooling exercise, Boyapati was cultivating four acres of land, including three acres of leased land, making an income of up to Rs. 1.5 lakh, which she says was three times the lease amount paid by the government. “I wanted to send my daughter for civil services coaching but had to marry her off as the rent paid by the government was nowhere near the income from our fertile land. The promised reimbursement of fees was not given for my son, who is pursuing engineering,” she says. The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which undertook the land-pooling exercise, had promised farmers that the area would become another Singapore, the farmers’ plots appreciate multiple times and there will be a lot of growth in terms of quality of life, she says.

Financial difficulties were only one of the several problems faced by Pandu (named changed), a farmer at the Nelapadu village where the temporary High Court building came up. Due to lack of physical activity following the land-pooling exercise, many farmers began suffering from lifestyle diseases, he says. “My father was administered a stent in the heart last year. I’m becoming lazy as well. Earlier, agriculture had kept us fit.” He adds: “We are also struggling to fend for our children’s school fees. This was not the case earlier. The land-pooling exercise has caused us a lot of mental turmoil as there has been no development here.”

On the other side are farmers from the Undavalli, Penumaka and Nidamarru villages, where land is considered more fertile, who did not want to part with their land. While some farmers demanded more compensation than what was offered, the others simply did not want to lose their primary source of income. Penumaka-based farmer K.S. Reddy was one of the farmers who refused to give away their land and, as a result, were made to suffer the state’s high-handedness. “Our names were erased from revenue records. We were pressured by the police and revenue personnel. Ultimately, we approached the High Court and got a stay order,” he says. Koti Reddy, who belongs to the same village, says the government did not fulfil its promises. “The demand for land has now decreased. On top of all these, freeze on cultivation in the 34,000 acres is a disappointing sight for all farmers,” he says.

The TDP government was also accused of major manipulations while conducting the land-pooling exercise. It was alleged that political leaders and people close to the government bought land at cheaper prices much before the announcement of Amaravati as location of the capital. The present government is planning a probe into such accusations of insider trading. Speaking about the issue in the Assembly, Finance Minister B. Rajendranath Reddy said, “People close to Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, other Ministers and their relatives bought over 4,000 acres much before the announcement of Amaravati. These people came from different parts of the State and bought the land. It is some kind of insider trading worth probing.”

“What transpired in A.P. was that decisions were taken according to the whims and fancies of a few influential persons ruling the State. There was no consultation with the other political parties. The people of the other regions were kept in the dark. The voices of those who opposed the capital city being located in Guntur-Krishna region were gagged or ignored,” wrote I.Y.R Krishna Rao, former A.P. Chief Secretary, in his book Whose Capital Amaravathi? back in 2018.

‘Not another Hyderabad’

Following A.P.’s bifurcation in 2014, the Union Home Ministry constituted a committee to study the alternatives for a new State capital. The committee, headed by former Urban Development Secretary K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, recommended one major administrative city and several other cities focused on investment, technology and industry. Most importantly, the committee warned the government against building a capital in the Vijayawada-Guntur-Tenali-Mangalagiri (VGTM) region. It stated that the fertile land in the region was essential to ensure food security and agriculture. It instead recommended Donakonda, where ample government land was available, as a suitable location for a new capital.

In contrast to the wishes of the TDP government, which wanted a humongous and world-class capital city, the committee wanted a smaller one to avoid concentration of development and wealth.

“The committee is strongly of the view that locating several governmental offices within the VGTM area is both unfeasible for financial reasons and undesirable for decentralised development. It will significantly add to the “honey pot” character, similar to Hyderabad, which in turn will detract from the potential and growth prospects of other centres in Andhra. It is questionable whether the existing government offices in particular commissionerates, directorates etc. however numerous they are, will be able to facilitate or generate economic development or employment by themselves.”

The committee further added that it did not consider a single large capital city a feasible option available to A.P. The concentration in Hyderabad of the legislature, the courts and the executive had happened over several years and was a major bone of contention in the bifurcation process, it said. The committee had also spoken of the possible environmental impact of densifying the urban area in the VGTM region. It said there should be least possible dislocation to existing agriculture systems as the districts of Krishna, Guntur and West Godavari comprise some of the best agricultural lands in the country. Guntur and Krishna districts are among the State’s most populated areas “Any attempt to convert agricultural land into non-agricultural use will seriously displace this workforce, rendering [it] unemployed; loss of valuable agricultural land and disappearance of small holdings [will] benefit only... the real estate operators,” the committee stated.

Further, the committee had also made a specific mention of the high water table in the region and the related vulnerabilities. Quoting the reports of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), it stated that the high water table and vulnerable soil types may together lead to severe problems.

“ Any invitation to government offices and institutions to locate within the VGTM urban area may lead to a construction boom and haphazard development which may, however, seriously strain the existing infrastructure and aggravate the vulnerability of the area,” the report pointed out.

Suggesting a decentralised development across the State, the committee indicated that Vizag region in Uttarandhra; the Rayalaseema Arc comprising Kurnool, Anantapur, Tirupathi, Kadapa and Chittoor and the ‘Kalahasti-Nadikudi spine’ could be considered for distributed development. Expansion of all existing cities was also another option, said the committee.

However, ignoring the committee’s suggestions, the TDP government went ahead with its plan to build a huge greenfield capital. As the exercise of land pooling progressed, a grand ceremony was arranged for laying the foundation of the proposed capital. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on October 22, 2015, laid the foundation stone for the Amaravati capital city, in the presence of several other dignitaries, including Japan State Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yosuke Takagi.

On the same day, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry S. Eswaran offered the city-state’s support to build a modern capital. Japanese Minister Takagi and Chief Minister Naidu signed an MoU for the development of a new capital city and industry cooperation. Noriko Nasu, Director General of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, signed an MoU with the AP government for facilitating foreign investments in the new capital and region.

Later, in 2017, following the Swiss Challenge method, the Ascendas-Singbridge Pvt Ltd and Sembcorp Development Ltd signed an MoU with the A.P. government’s Amaravati Development Corporation to construct the start-up area in about 1,691 acres in the core capital region, abutting the riverbanks of Krishna in Amaravati. Further, a special purpose vehicle was floated for the development of a start-up area in which the Singapore consortium was expected to invest about Rs. 306 crore for a 58%-equity partnership with the ADP.

The State government also sent around 125 farmers, out of the total 25,000, to Singapore to give them some exposure on dealing in real estate and other sectors. The idea was to train farmers for multiple business opportunities. The farmers were also explained in detail how Singapore, which was once a colony of fishing communities, emerged as an economic city. However, all structures built in Amaravati — the secretariat complex, State legislature and the High Court complex— were temporary though foundation was also laid for the permanent structures.

It took an inordinately long time of three years for the past government to conceptualise designs for the capital. The government involved multiple firms — like Foster and Partners, a British Architecture firm; Japanese design firm Maki and Associates; the Singapore-government owned Surbana Jurong; and China’s Guizhou International Investment Corporation. In addition, the government also involved film directors S.S. Rajamouli and Boyapati Srinu add value to the designs. However, ultimately, there was no official announcement by the government on whether any one design had been finalised.

The failure of the Amaravati vision was possibly one of the factors that contributed to TDP’s massive loss in the Assembly election. The new YSRCP government decided to entrust two panels with the task of providing proposals on a new capital. The report by one of them, the G.N. Rao Committee, which gave the three-capital idea, is currently being studied by a high-level committee consisting of Ministers and top officials in the government. The second committee, having officials from the Boston Consulting Group, will submit its report in the first week of January. A final call on the three-capital proposal will be taken only after these two reports are studied.

Visakhapatnam may be the executive capital; Amaravati the legislative capital; and we may have High Court in Kurnool

Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy,

Chief Minister, Andhra Pradesh

I wanted to send my daughter for civil services coaching but had to marry her off as the rent paid by the government was nowhere near the income from our fertile land

Sudharani Boyapati,

Farmer at Amaravati

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