From Singapore to Amaravati: the battle to build India's new state capital

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  1. Jan 26, 2016


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    May 6, 2015
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    From Singapore to Amaravati: the battle to build India's new state capital

    International planners behind the brand new smart city in Andhra Pradesh have come up against angry farmers, disappearing land records and ancient architectural beliefs. Despite these hurdles, is Amaravati still on track?

    The foundation stone laid by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for the new state capital city of Amaravati. Photograph: Sandhya Ravishankar

    India’s grand scheme to create brand new “smart cities” along the lines of Singapore has encountered a few local difficulties in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

    Deep-rooted beliefs about the alignment of buildings, for example – which, according to the traditional Hindu system of Vaasthu Shastra, can bring about good or bad luck – forced the stategovernment to revise its ambitious masterplans for Amaravati, the new state capital being built from scratch there.

    “The draft masterplan for Amaravati was prepared by planners from the Singapore government as part of an agreement between the state of Andhra Pradesh and Singapore,” explained Srikant Nagulapalli, commissioner of theAndhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA). “But when the first draft arrived, we realised that it would not work.”

    According to Nagulapalli: “Global town planning principles do not take Vaasthuinto consideration. But the people of Andhra Pradesh have a deep-rooted belief and will not buy any property that is not north- or east-facing. We had to send [the draft plan] back to the master planners and ask them to rework it taking these principles into account. The whole capital city project would have had no buyers if the initial draft had been implemented,” he said.

    There is some debate among Indian historians about how old Vaasthu(which translates from Sanskrit as the “science of architecture”, and is essentially an ancient compilation of rules for various types of building) really is, and who the original author was. What is indisputable, though, is its pervasiveness in Indian society.

    “The master planners with the Singapore government were puzzled,” Nagulapalli said. “They wanted to know what Vaasthu was and who wrote it. We were stumped. After some rather frantic research, we found that the Indian scholar Varahamihira had written it in the 6th century. We have learnt a lot during the process of building this capital.”

    Amaravati – India’s fifth planned state capital city – was conceived after the splitting up of Andhra Pradesh in June 2014 into two smaller states, Telangana and (a smaller) Andhra Pradesh, following a three-decade struggle for statehood by residents of the Telangana region. As part of the Indian government’s legislation, the existing capital, Hyderabad, would continue to be shared for another 10 years, after which it becomes solely the capital of Telangana.

    Amaravati was envisioned as a world-class smart city, the first to be part-funded by the Indian government. The new city will be built at an expected cost of 1 trillion rupees (£10.7bn)on 217.23 square kilometres of land on the banks of the Krishna river, and is expected to generate jobs to sustain a population of 9-12 million people in the surrounding capital region.

    The Andhra Pradesh government signed a pro-bono agreement with Singapore in December 2014 to plan the new capital. In all, the government of Singapore, along with private agency Surbana Jurong, committed to preparing three masterplans – the last of which, the “seed capital masterplan” for the core of the city (which will house the Central Business District and the state’s new government offices) was only submitted last week.

    “The biggest problem in a project of this nature is acquiring land,” said Rama Manohara, finance director at the CRDA. “We needed around 35,000 acres of land to build the capital city – but buying land from farmers in the region would have proved impossible since, under Indian laws, we would have had to pay them four times the market value of the land. The state government simply could not afford that – so we came up with the land pooling policy.”

    That policy, which came into effect just over a year ago, is a first-of-its-kind experiment in India: a unique deal between landowners (predominantly farmers) in the capital region and the state government. The farmer contributes their land to a “pool” for development of the new capital city; the state government develops the land as per the masterplan; then it returns to the farmer roughly a quarter of the land that was originally contributed.

    Balaji Reddy, a farmer in neighbouring Undavalli village, refuses to pool his land for the new capital. Photograph: Sandhya Ravishankar

    “This additional process was the reason for a large number of settlement disputes,” said Nagulapalli. “If you see some of the land records, you will find that land boundaries are identified using vague markers such as ‘a tamarind tree in the south-west corner of the plot’. Once the tamarind tree is cut down, you have no idea where the land boundary is. It was a very complex process.”

    To date, the state government has successfully managed to pool together 33,000 of the required 35,000 acres of land for the new capital. Difficulties remain, with farmers in more urban and fertile areas refusing to pool their land as the compensation offered by government is regarded as much less than the prevailing land value.

    Balaji Reddy, a resident of Undavalli village in the capital region, is one of several thousand farmers who have petitioned the Andhra Pradesh High Court against land pooling, demanding that they be compensated fairly for their land.
    “All the villages here are rich, fertile, multi-crop lands,” said Reddy, a tenant farmer cultivating five acres of banana, roses and jasmine. “Our land is worth over 100 million rupees per acre now. We will get less than one-hundredth that rate from the government if we give up our lands for pooling. Why should we be losers?”

    His neighbour Srinivas Reddy (no relation), a farmer owning half an acre of farmland and cultivating three acres of lily, onion and roses on lease, agrees. “We are earning more than enough to sustain our families now. We cannot afford to put our children through college if we take the government’s offer. In the rural areas, the price of land is only 1 million rupees per acre, so it is lucrative for them to pool the land. That is not the case with us.”

    The state government of Andhra Pradesh has its work cut out, battling irate farmers in court on one hand, and dealing with bureaucratic tangles on the other. Political pressures abound for the state’s chief minister, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, who was voted in in 2014 on the promise of a sparkling new capital city which would usher in foreign companies and provide employment opportunities to the people of the state.

    As Naidu told an audience last month: “The whole world is looking at Amaravati and you should be aware of that.” He, of all people, certainly is.

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