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A Half-Billion Dollar Urban Vision Stalls in India
Politics -- or chicanery -- end a dream
By: Nava Thakuria
Amaravati, envisioned as the newly minted smart capital city of Andhra Pradesh on India’s southeastern coast, is a mirage sunk either by criminality or a political vendetta or both, despite the commitment of half a billion US dollars by the World Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the lending institution established by Beijing to finance Belt & Road projects, and visionary planning by Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities, which has helped to redesign cities in Cambodia and Bhutan.
There may be a lesson here for Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, who will leave office soon with his own visionary new capital unfinished on an island 1,600 km from Jakarta in the hands of a new president to be elected next January. It is expected to take until 2045 to get Jokowi’s city built, the reign of at least two or possibly three presidents who, like the newly elected chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, might have different ideas.
Amaravati, once projected to cover nearly 220 sq. km on the banks of the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, lies mostly stagnating since 2019 although huge land area was procured and construction of many buildings has got underway. The 33,000 farmers who collectively handed over their lands to the government for construction of the capital under a controversial land pooling system in return for some financial benefits for the new megalopolis now say they feel cheated.
The present government, which ousted the then-ruling Telugu Desam Party in 2019, is determined to develop another city – or three, improbably, hundreds of kilometers apart – as the state capital even though the matter is pending before India’s highest court.
The story began when the state was split into two, with the new state of Telangana coming into existence in June 2014 after approval from the president of India. Although Hyderabad was to remain the capital for both for a decade, Andhra Pradesh's powerful then-chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, the Telugu Desam leader who had ruled the state for a decade, declared that he would develop Amaravati as the new capital for the state within the 10-year period Hyderabad remained the state’s capital..
The 13th Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Naidu envisioned Amaravati as the country’s leading people-centric smart city, starting from zero. A techno-savvy leader, Naidu was inspired by the model of Singapore, whose visionary planners lead the region. Singapore’s government-linked Centre for Liveable Cities, which has helped to re-vision parts of Phnom Penh and Thimpu, among other municipalities, was brought in to help plan a world-class greenfield capital. Thousands of acres of land were acquired, and big plans were drawn up for the new capital, which was expected to be a vibrant commercial hub for the regional industries in south India.
The governments of Singapore and Andhra Pradesh signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014, with the then-Union government in New Delhi also roped in for support and with the World Bank and AIIB on board with half a billion dollars in loans. Half of the new smart capital was to be covered by trees and other cover, 10 percent with watercourses and ponds to keep temperatures under control for city dwellers. Affordable housing with 100 percent Wi-Fi internet connection was expected to be made available for the residents. Overhead electric wires and mobile towers were to be avoided in the capital complex, as with those in ultra-modern cities in different parts of the globe. Amaravati was also to be an important Buddhist site for pilgrimage and learning.
It all ended when Naidu’s TDP lost the 2019 legislative assembly elections and the YSR Congress Party came to power. Jagan Mohan Reddy, the son of the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, who died in a helicopter crash, became the new chief minister after winning an overwhelming 151 of 175 assembly seats. From the beginning, Reddy alleged a massive real-estate scam in the land acquisition for Amaravati. He ignored the initiative begun by Naidu. Soon the central government and later the banks lost interest and withdrew support for the project.
The Reddy government pushed two separate directives through the state assembly scrapping the capital region development authority, which Naidu had formed in 2014 to develop Amaravati as the capital. He also proposed Andhra Pradesh’s regional decentralization and inclusive development of all regional laws, proposing to spread the government across the state, with Amaravati as the legislative capital along with Visakhapatnam, more than 1,000 km away, as the executive capital and Kurnool, 700 km away, the judicial capital, without explaining how the three branches of government were to work together from hundreds of kilometers apart.
Reddy promoted the idea of three capitals, saying the distance between them would help to extend all-round developments across Andhra Pradesh with decentralization of opportunity. However, he mooted Visakhapatnam, the largest and most populous metropolitan city in the state, lying on the Bay of Bengal as the administrative capital. He recently declared that it would start functioning from this month with his official residence expected to be shifted from the present location near Amaravati after the autumn festival (Dasara).
But the hundreds of Amaravati farmers who had given their lands for the capital city project protested, continuing demonstrations against the government's decision to shift the executive capital to Visakhapatnam. They also filed with the Andhra Pradesh High Court to denounce Reddy's decentralization policy. In March 2022, the high court directed the state government to develop Amaravati as its capital. The government has appealed to Inda’s Supreme Court, where the matter is still pending.
A Reddy sympathizer, in an interview, argued that state governments by virtue of the Constitution have every right to select its new capital where it wants. Now Reddy will start functioning from the port city, he said, and will continue the initiative to decentralize administrative power and development activities. The government, he asserted, will need fewer resources to develop Visakhapatnam, already a busy commercial city. He acknowledged that the initiative would help Reddy’s party to garner more support from the electorate in the forthcoming assembly elections, scheduled along with the national elections due in early 2024.
Political analysts say that if Reddy’s party wins the assembly elections, he will make sure that Naidu’s dream project Amaravati is dead. If the results go other ways and Naidu returns to power in the absence of national political parties like the Congress or Bhartiya Janata Party, Amaravati may get its due, as would all the outraged farmers.
But Naidu is currently behind bars, arrested on September 9 on allegations of a multi-million-rupee skills development corporation scam, accused of manipulating contracts and misappropriating public money. He faces multiple other cases of corruption including allegations of an Amaravati lands scam. Local party leaders were also detained before Naidu's arrest, and police forces from various districts, including Anantapur and Kurnool, were deployed to Nandyal as a preventive measure.
Naidu’s wife Nara Bhuvaneswari has begun to lead a hunger strike by party leaders across the State. He has declared his innocence and demanded to see the evidence.
In the meantime, Amaravati, its funding sources having dried up in the wake of the Reddy victory, its Singapore visionaries back home, is slowly moldering away. The smart city appears more and more like a fantasy, with its founder in jail.