On 9 September, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu shifted his official residence from Hyderabad to a spacious bungalow on the banks of river Krishna in Undavalli village. This Lingamaneni guest house encroaches the river and is in violation of the River Conservation Act, according to activists who have filed petitions against it in front of the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Though the Krishna district had issued a notice in February 2015 to the owners of the Lingamaneni estates – an industrial group said to be close to the Naidu family – a high level team of the district administration along with Naidu’s personal vastu consultant spruced it up for the chief minister.
Barely two kilometres from the Prakasam Barrage, the guest house has four bedrooms, an amphitheatre, two big halls and is spread over one and a half acres.
The estate, in fact, is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) supremo wants to build his dream citadel – the new capital city of Amaravati – spanning over 217.23 sq kilometres and 25 villages.
This city would include 33,000 acres of private land and another 20,000 acres of government (including forest) land, dwarfing the original Amaravati – a historic hub of Buddhist culture said to have stood just a few kilometres away from the site of the new capital.
Naidu is now saddled with protests of environmentalists who approached the NGT, which directed in October 2015 that no construction activity should be taken up in the capital area without a proper Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
But the Naidu regime ignored this directive and has already built temporary Secretariat blocks on the site of the Capital Region Development Area (CRDA). The EIA prepared by the Mumbai based Tata Consulting Engineers is also being questioned by the NGT.
Terming this move of the AP government as contempt of the NGT order, petitioners argued that the Tribunal had stayed all activity, including levelling of land and the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) clearance, since it is not the competent authority to issue clearances for such a large project.
But the state is defiant. Municipal Administration Minister P Narayana, who is overseeing Amaravati project, said, “We got all clearances.” On the stay issued by NGT, he added, “I need to study the matter. I cannot make off-the-cuff remarks.”
In the second week of September, the NGT again expressed doubts over the state's plans to elevate the 10,000-acre capital city to protect it from flooding. “Will it be viable to elevate the capital city over such a large extent?” asked NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar. The case is posted for government response and the next hearing is scheduled for 6 November.
On 11 October 2015, the Tribunal directed the AP government not to take up any construction work in the earmarked place for the new capital, including levelling off the ground. It also sought the details of wetlands in the proposed new capital that would be exposed to floods in the Kondaveeti Vaagu (a tributary of the river Krishna) and also the Krishna river, which is known for regular flooding.
But Naidu went ahead with the laying of the foundation stone for Amaravati on 22 October 2015 – an event that was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the time, Naidu told media persons that the government would respond to the NGT notice and that he was confident of getting all clearances for the new capital soon. The issue though is still pending before the NGT with no resolution in sight.
Early in 2016, the AP government faced another hurdle with the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), who reportedly turned down the state's proposal to use about 13,000 hectares of forest land for construction of the capital project. Adding to these is the AP government’s bidding process of Swiss Challenge, which is also facing legal hurdles and has been set aside for now.
Early in September, the NGT asked the AP government to immediately submit a report on the likely submergence of the areas in the proposed capital region. The PIL petitioners had submitted a detailed report to the Tribunal along with videos and photographs as evidence on the cutting of trees in the region and the likely submergence of land in the CRDA.
Concurring with the petitioners’ argument that the capital region was already reeling with around 50 degrees centigrade heat waves during the summer and that temperatures would further go up if greenery is reduced, the Tribunal asked the government to immediately put a halt to the ongoing work and submit a detailed report on the dry lands, areas that will face submergence and the existing greenery levels in the capital region and posted the case to November for further hearing.
An expert committee set up by the Centre had earlier questioned the state government on issues like acquisition of fertile agricultural land, high water table, vulnerable soil type and the flood-prone nature of the region and had also indicated that the region was not suitable for high rise development and capital building.
Still seething over loss of Hyderabad as per the terms of the AP Reorganisation Act of 2014, Naidu wants to build a capital city transforming the rich riverine farmland with streets like in Singapore, canals like in Venice and with the ambience of the ancient Telugu heritage of Amaravati.
His dreams hinge on attaining environmental clearances for the new capital city, which, if he does not get, would scare away international investors from the state. Even if the Union government is supportive of the Amaravati project, it would likely be a huge embarrassment to the TDP, with elections barely two years away.
Environmentalist and former Union Secretary EAS Sarma says that it was shocking that no survey was conducted in the capital city region for its bio-resources, water bodies and the socio-economic barometers.
In his petition filed under Section 16 and Section 18 of the NGT Act 2010, he says that the project will cause “irreversible damage to the ecology and environment of the area.”
Sarma says that there were several lapses – the SEIAA had not considered the environmental impact on a 10 km radius of the project site. If it had done so, it would have noted the air pollution in Vijayawada just 3 km away. Secondly there is no proper forest clearance as per MoEF notification of 2011, he adds.
The AP chief minister does not appear to be thinking too much about the environmental costs of his dream capital. For him more practical issues abound – getting the Swiss Challenge through, delivering Special Status to AP, induction of his son Nara Lokesh into the state cabinet and sorting out the turbulent issue of Krishna water sharing with Telangana.