A socio-political and economic model that should have been the pride of Andhra Pradesh is now in tatters as a result of the short-sightedness of the political class.
Probably for the first time anywhere in the world, as many as 28,000 farmers who joined a voluntary land pooling scheme to create 33,000 acres of a land bank for building a capital city, have taken to the streets.
The farmers of Amaravati and their families, anxious over their fate, have spilled onto the streets following the statement of Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy in the recent Assembly session that his government was thinking of having three state capitals.
“For example, we can have a legislative capital in Amaravati, an executive capital in Visakhapatnam and judicial capital at Kurnool,” Jagan announced on 17 December. As if on cue, the GN Rao Committee, constituted by Jagan government, submitted its report a couple of days later on Friday recommending Vizag, as Visakhapatnam is also known, as the ideal location for secretariat and chief minister’s office, while state Assembly could be continued in Amaravati.
The latest developments confirmed the worst fears of the farmers, as well as sections of the people in the state, that the Jagan government has always had alternative plans for the capital. The YSR Congress government has barely concealed its aversion to developing Amaravati as envisaged by his bête noire N Chandrababu Naidu since Jagan came to power six months ago
Andhra Pradesh was left without a capital in the aftermath of the bifurcation in 2014 when Naidu, then the chief minister, offered to make farmers stakeholders in the development of the new capital. After many commitments on the part of the government, the farmers, in good faith, came forward to give away their fertile lands — owned by families for generations — on the banks of River Krishna.
The region boasts of one of the oldest habitations in the country, going back at least two millennia, and is associated with historic dynasties like Satavahanas and cities such as Amaravati and Dhanyakataka.
The then TDP government wanted to capitalise on the region’s history and rich culture by locating the capital in the region and calling it Amaravati, the eternal city, in a bid to draw on the pride in the continuity of Andhra history.
However, all that has come to nought with the YSR Congress government appearing to be determined to discredit Amaravati project. Though Jagan, as Opposition leader, supported the location of the capital at Amaravati, he later dubbed the project "corruption-ridden".
The party stood behind about four percent of the farmers who refused to part with their lands and extended support to NGOs and other organisations who opposed the project over environmental and other concerns.
Jagan, through his media outlets, spearheaded a sustained campaign that accused Naidu of making Rs 1 lakh crore out of Amaravati by letting his benamis buy large tracts of land in the area before the announcement of capital. These allegations have been repeated since Jagan came into power. However, the Jagan government has not come up with any hard evidence to conclusively prove that there were any large-scale transactions in the period between Naidu’s take over in June 2014 and the formal announcement of the location of the capital in December 2014.
But the repeated charges of ‘insider trading’ by TDP leaders in Amaravati seem to have made a dent in the image of TDP. Jagan and his party also insinuated that the location of the capital was intended to benefit Naidu’s own community, the Kammas, who form a sizeable section among the farmers in the area. These charges seem to have stuck to some extent in other regions of the state and were cited by several observers as one of the reasons for the stunning defeat of TDP and the stupendous victory of YSR Congress in the recent polls.
In recent months, many ministers in the Jagan government also spoke about how Amaravati was prone to floods and how the cost of construction could be high due to the topography of the area. Another oft-repeated statement was that the government did not have money to go ahead with Amaravati construction.
Besides scrapping the start-up area development agreement with a Singapore consortium designed to kickstart work on Amaravati, municipal minister B Satyanarayana even insinuated that the Memorandum of Understanding was a fraud, though the consortium consisted of reputed companies (Ascendas-Singbridge) affiliated to the Singapore government. Former Financial Times journalist and author James Crabtree wondered at the temerity of the decision, stating it was, “hard to fathom how much damage the decision unilaterally to scrap this new city project will have for India's reputation as a reliable international partner”.
In this backdrop, it was increasingly evident that the Jagan government was in no hurry to carry on with the work of the capital city, even though a total of 92 lakh square feet of construction was nearly completed in Amaravti. Had the new government taken forward the construction at the same pace, all AIS officers, high court judges, secretariat employees, ministers and MLAs would have had their official quarters ready for occupation in Amaravati by now. According to government figures, nearly Rs 9,000 crore was already spent on the infrastructure in Amaravati.
While Jagan’s statement opened a Pandora’s box with people from different regions finding themselves at loggerheads, it is the farmers of Amaravati who have been left in the lurch in this Tower of Babel.
The land pooling scheme was successful because the state government made the farmers partners in the development benefits. It was because of this partnership model that 33,036 acres could be acquired under the Land Pooling Scheme against a target of 38,581 acres. Farmers were to get 31.60 per cent of ‘Returnable Land’ in the capital city area after it was developed as per international standards.
For example, the farmers got 1,000 square yards of residential and 250 square yards of commercial parcel per every acre of dry land alienated. It was 1,000 square yards of residential and 450 square yards of commercial land per acre if it was wet land. Besides, the farmers also got a whole lot of benefits such as being extended one-time agricultural loan waiver of up to Rs 1,50,000 per family. Since the farmers also would have lost their regular income, the then Naidu government also provided for payment of Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 per annum as an annuity for a period of ten years per acre of land alienated.
It is unclear now what will happen to all the pooled land if the Jagan government were to go ahead with limiting Amaravati for merely conducting Assembly sessions. The agriculturally rich area has now become fallow since construction work began in 2017. Besides, the land has been dug out at several places for the construction of roads — some of them six-lane — and for building several structures such as the upcoming high court building. Already, an interim government complex, a civil courts complex in which the Andhra Pradesg High Court is presently functioning from, and a temporary Assembly building endowed with the best of the facilities have been operational.
In this backdrop, no one has a clue as to the fate of the farmers, and the Jagan government is suspected of deliberately playing hide-and-seek with them. Worried over their future, the farmers and their families have now taken to the streets. The irony is that the farmers who gave away their lands as part of a social contract without receiving immediate compensation are now in the doldrums. The bitter experience has shattered their faith in the institution of government and the sanctity of contracts.
It is not merely the farmers who would be left rudderless if the capital activities were to be shifted to Vizag. Land was allocated in the new capital to prestigious educational institutions such as XLRI and National Institute of Design, to renowned hospitals such as BRS Medicity and Indo-UK and leaders in the hospitality industry such as Hilton, Crowne Plaza and Novotel. None of these is likely to see the light of the day in the new set of circumstances. SRM and VIT, two premier engineering institutes, which have already started classes in imposing buildings might increasingly find it difficult to get the best of students if Amaravati is abandoned.
Interestingly, all those, including several NGOs who eagerly spread partial truths that land pooling was not voluntary and the Naidu government had forcibly taken lands are not to be seen or heard anywhere when the distressed farmers have come out protesting against the violation of the terms of the contract under which land was pooled in the first place.
The land pooling concept in Amaravati was once hailed as a great model for development in India by several experts. “Modi should take thousands of farmers from Bihar and other states to meet the farmers in AP who are voluntarily pooling their land”, well-known economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar wrote in 2015, enthused by the new experiment in Andhra. Now, it looks like the Amaravati farmers have nowhere to go.
Jagan government’s defence for the new move is to talk about the decentralisation of development. Many observers question how the distribution of buildings such as secretariat and high court across the state could be considered as decentralisation. While Amaravati is centrally located in the bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, Vizag is located in one corner of the state. For example, it is a nearly 17-hour journey (880 km) for somebody from Anantapur in Rayalaseema to visit the proposed secretariat in Vizag.
Critics say that the move to shift secretariat to Vizag, the largest city in Andhra Pradesh presently, is mainly to ensure that the ruling party will have enough room to fashion the development in a way that would benefit the ruling party functionaries. Since there is little wiggle room in Amaravati where everything had been tied up by Chandrababu Naidu, the new chief minister allegedly chose to shift gears.
Andhras have never had a capital of their own for a long time now. Madras was considered the capital till 1953, and then Hyderabad till 2014. They had a brief dalliance with Amaravati between 2014 and 2019. Few can say with any certainty what the future holds for Andhras on the capital issue.
Ramesh Kandula is an independent journalist based out of Hyderabad
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 16:49:16 IST