Editor's Note: Amaravati — Andhra Pradesh's new capital will be built over 33,000 acres of fertile land along the Krishna river. Firstpost travelled to the interiors of the region allocated for the capital to map the extent of social, environmental and economic damage dealt by the Andhra Pradesh government in its bid to build a 'world-class city'. The series will also feature 360 degree footage of the land in question, with accompanying audio commentary.
The fourth part of the series focuses on Pandalaneni Srimannarayana's battle for the protection of the floodplains of the river Krishna and against the corrupt practices in AP government's push to acquire lands near Amaravati.
May 11, 2017: “When the chief minister (Chandrababu Naidu) chose Vijayawada as the capital area, I was elated like all the others in the city. That’s the natural tendency — I am from Vijayawada and I was happy that our city was getting to be the state's capital,” 74-year-old Pandalaneni Srimannarayana reminisces of a time in 2014, just after the bifurcation, of the state of Andhra Pradesh, came through and the chief minister announced the Vijayawada-Guntur region as the seat of the new capital. Vijayawada had been the business and finance capital of the state all this while, and most of its residents wanted it to be the seat of power as well. However, Naidu named Amaravati as the capital city of Andhra Pradesh, soon after.
Pandalaneni, probably, was the first person in Andhra Pradesh to have raised his voice against the government's plan to build a 'world-class' capital on the floodplains of the Krishna river just a few months later. “The Sivaramakrishnan Committee included experts with impeccable qualifications. After listening to their recommendations about the proposed capital region and their strict advice to not build in the chosen region, I got curious and I wanted to understand their points better. That's how I started studying the matter in depth," explains Pandalaneni whose dissent stems from a concern for the environment.
Pandalaneni does not own any land in the proposed capital region. "The NGT is only concerned with the environmental aspects of the capital city; I am dealing with only that aspect of it," he says. His friends, peers, and acquaintances do not understand the reasons behind his struggle — to save the biodiversity of the region, the agricultural lands, and the Krishna river flood plains — to take the case all the way to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Pandalaneni is passionate about this despite his age, illness, and has taken on a debt of a few lakh rupees (that he owes to his lawyers and friends) in order to fight his case at the NGT.
The environment is not a major concern among the commercially driven population in the region; finance is. And maybe this is why Pandalaneni has earned himself a moniker or two among his peers — some call him "mad", some say he is "living in a fool's paradise"; "he wants fame," said another. But Pandalaneni isn't easily distressed, "Maybe so," he says and adds, "I have lived an unprofitable life, lost livelihood opportunities and businesses several times because of my natural inclination to fight for social causes. I have been moulded and motivated by PV Narasimha Rao since my college days,” he says. Pandalaneni has already spent over Rs 55 lakh on fighting his case at the NGT. He had to sell his favourite SUV, family-owned plot in Hyderabad to pay for the expenses.
“I am fighting this battle alone. I don't have anyone behind me. I just want to ensure that the rich agricultural lands in the floodplains of the Krishna river are safe. It takes millions of years for the top soil to reach this level of fertility and we should not ruin it. The capital can come up anywhere else,” he says passionately.
I spoke to Pandalaneni at length, here are a few excerpts from our conversation:
What is so wrong about having a riverside, 'world-class' capital that serves as a lavish gateway to attract more international tourists?
Several things. First, the Sivaramakrishnan committee clearly suggested that this is not a suitable place for a capital and recommended a small administrative capital by which development can spread out. We learnt the same lessons from our past. The government and private entrepreneurs had dumped money, resources, everything in and around Hyderabad. At the time of the bifurcation, the revenue generated from Hyderabad was above 24.6 percent and the rest of Telangana excluding Hyderabad generated only 8.5 percent, Rayalaseema generated only 8 percent revenues. What this means is that Hyderabad city alone generates larger revenues than the rest of the state. Development needs to be spread across a wider region, in our case, over the three areas — coastal Andhra Pradesh, Rayalseema and the north coast of Andhra Pradesh. Second, the committee suggested that this is not a viable place, even for an administrative capital. It comes under seismic zone number three — an earthquake prone area. The soil is not good for heavy construction. Black cotton soil and gypsum are not suitable to carry weight-bearing structures and this means that it would be difficult to sustainably build anything above two floors.
This whole region has fertile lands which grow over 120 varieties of crops and yield at least three crops a year. There is no other agricultural hub in India that produces 120 varieties of crops or these many yields annually. A farmer can easily earn a few lakh rupees per acre from his land here. The second such hub is in Israel. So what is the point of spoiling these resources? It takes thousands of years to create a top soil of such richness, decades of efforts by farmers to enhance the fertility of the lands and it only takes minutes to destroy it all. Food security is another issue.
Finally, look at the water bodies, there is lot of biodiversity here. This will also be adversely affected. The Kondaveeti Vagu — which looks like a dry canal for most part of the year, swells and floods the plains that have been identified for building the capital. Does this make sense? If you convert these river plains into concrete, it will destroy the long stretches of Andhra Pradesh’s mangroves. What kind of an impact will that have on the climate, global warming?
What about the the large area of land that is being pooled and acquired?
Chandrababu Naidu hopes to acquire at least 2 lakh acres of land for his 'world-class' capital. New York City has been built on an area of 4500 square kilometres. It’s the biggest in the world. Naidu wants to make the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) to spread over 8000 square kilometres. So does he need to build a capital for the state of Andhra Pradesh which is double the size of New York City? Prevention is better than cure. We are going to make a new capital. We should have the far-sight and build accordingly. Delhi also comes under the seismic zone, but that’s already there and we cannot change it. But when you are building a city from scratch, you plan it in a way that minimises hazards. There can be good governance and bad governance, but in Andhra Pradesh, there's no governance at all. Even the Opposition is ineffective.
What aspect of poor governance are you referring to?
The government has brought order numbers 109 and 110 in May 2015. What do these do? They announce the creation of a Capital City Development and Management Company (CCDMC), a corporation that has 50 percent government participation and 50 percent private participation. What would the CCDMC do? They would curtail the legislative powers of the local governing bodies, such as, the municipalities, village panchayats, gram sabhas in the vicinity of these 8000 square kilometres that the government has identified as the state capital region. The reason for doing this is to be able to fix taxes for the legislative area, among several other things. For a particular house, the quantum of tax to be collected is decided by the local legislative authority, right? It is a prerogative, it is a right for the local legislative authorities. Even a municipality is like the Parliament, it has legislative power. But through the CCDMC (presently name changed to Amaravati Development Corporation Limited or ADCL) will decide the amount of the taxes to be collected from the public, or how to utilise the amount. As per the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution, the local elected bodies are supposed to carry out this function. But now, through these organisations, this constitutional guarantee has been surpassed in the capital region, isn’t it? Amaravati is an agricultural hub, it cannot be treated as an industrial sector.