The grim irony of the gods abandoning a city named Amaravati is hard to miss. The spectre of migration looms over the Vijayawada-Guntur region where a Chief Minister, unwilling to put down roots, is trying to sunder the notion of a capital from power, collective pride, civic representation and the symbolism of new hope. “Entire livelihoods that capital development created have vanished overnight—hotels are bracing to run empty, petrol pump owners and cab companies are already in the red, and women who hawked fruits are going back to farm labour—except there is very little farming going on in the region,” says Siva Reddy, convenor of the Amaravati Joint Action Committee.

The 29,000 farmers who were talked into giving up fertile lands by the river Krishna for a supposedly self-financing capital city project that promised high and lasting returns on investment are on the brink of despair. “This is like a man initiating divorce for whimsical reasons, leaving his spouse in the lurch,” says Rajendra Madala, a farmers’ association leader from Amaravati. “The secretariat, the High Court and some colleges are functional; several buildings are almost ready to be occupied; the arterial roads are laid. But the YSR Congress Party [YSRCP] is not rational—it just wants Chandrababu Naidu’s capital to die a natural death.”

“We are not changing the capital. We are only adding two new capitals. Amaravati will remain the same,” asserted Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy on January 20th, as the Assembly, meeting for a three-day special Winter Session, passed the AP Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, to break up the functions of the capital amongst Amaravati (legislative), Visakhapatnam (executive) and Kurnool (judicial). Speaking to #KhabarLive, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) President N Chandrababu Naidu argues that the arrangement is not only impractical, it is like splitting the very soul of Andhra Pradesh, coming just five years after the bifurcation of the state. “Even Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s mercurial decision to shift his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad was not as damaging,” he says. “Everyone wants to be part of a state’s capital story—and they know that an Assembly session a year or a High Court does not amount to a capital. If the real seat of power is located over 900 km from the farthest corner of Rayalaseema, how can you claim to be working for balanced development?”

“We have already started working from Vizag. My staff is looking for suitable quarters,” admits Municipal Administration Minister Botcha Satyanarayana. Establishing a capital in north-coastal Andhra Pradesh, while going ahead with the basic development of Amaravati, is the only way to address regional disparities, he says. “The north-coastal belt is the most backward in the state, with abysmal literacy and per capita income.

To develop Amaravati, as Naidu wanted it, would cost over Rs 1 lakh crore. He only spent Rs 6,000 crore. We intend to spend another Rs 4,000-5,000 crore to get the basic infrastructure up and running. In Vizag, on the other hand, an infusion of Rs 5,000-8,000 crore could work wonders.” A bureaucrat, who has done his bit to shore up the occupancy rate at the three luxury hotels in Vijayawada over the past eight months, concurs with the senior minister’s assessment of Amaravati as “a graveyard”. “I could not have uprooted my family from Hyderabad to move to a place with zero recreational avenues. Vizag, on the other hand, offers a good standard of living,” he says. Visakhapatnam, already the most developed city in residual Andhra Pradesh, contributes the largest share of any city to the gross state domestic product (GSDP).

In fact, Naidu had dubbed it the “financial capital of Andhra Pradesh” and sought to attract investments such as a Rs 70,000 crore data centre by the Adani Group–since scaled down–and a Rs 2,200 crore convention centre and hotel by the UAE-based Lulu Group, which has sworn off Andhra Pradesh after the YSRCP government cancelled its land allotment. With the secretariat and ministers looking to move to the seaside city by April, the Amaravati region is indeed destined to become a graveyard of past enchantments, including charging stations for electric cars, a state-of-the-art real-time governance centre, and a Legislative Council that may bite the dust in a few months.

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Amaravati’s doom is a story that was foretold even before the TDP made it the centrepiece of its campaign for the Assembly elections last year. It had already slipped between the immediate reality of dusty, half-finished bridges and the imagination of a man who had conceived it as the propulsive engine of the state’s future growth.

Mired in false starts, delays, doubts about the mammoth scale and the lack of funding from the Centre, Amaravati had started to appear increasingly illusory—just like the soft sunlit office cubicles, the precast space-age buildings and the electric car-driving grey suits featured in the planners’ 3D renderings. As YS Jagan Mohan Reddy assumed charge, the eerie sense of foreboding condensed into a great betrayal. Like Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, this city of mirrors, too, would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.

The high powered committee set up to collate and review the recommendations of the Boston Consulting Group and the expert committee appointed in September 2019 under retired IAS officer GN Rao to come up with acceptable approaches for the development of the state, identified a demand for education from the Vijayawada region, says Satyanarayana. “In fact, we are in talks with the Union HRD Ministry to collaborate on setting up 10 world-class universities within one complex in the Amaravati region as part of their new higher education policy. This is a first.

And it is what people need—education and phased development,” the minister says. With much of the 33,000 acres pooled by the TDP government no longer suitable for farming due to construction activity on the land, the closing of irrigation canals, the division of holdings into small plots and their sale to third parties, and other problems, urbanisation is the only way forward. “We are all small farmers here. Over 950 farmers from our village gave up 1,740 acres for the capital, and 35 per cent of it is already converted for urban use. A flyover stands where my three-crops-a-year patch of three acres was,” says Vani Chigurupati of Krishnayapalem, a village about 7 km from the secretariat where farmers are sitting on dharna in a tent by the side of the road.

The walls of a temple opposite the site sport large photographs of the Assembly building, the Vellore Institute of Technology’s Amaravati campus and the High Court. The YSRCP government, which has pushed through a legislation in the Assembly to repeal the AP Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA), to be replaced by an urban development board, has offered additional compensation to farmers under the land pooling scheme, and extended the period of annuity from 10 to 13 years. But nothing short of a full-fledged capital can ensure a secure future for the community, says Chigurupati.

The TDP is doing everything in its power to make sure that the stakeholders in the capital project don’t capitulate. In its experienced hands, the Legislative Council, where the party still enjoys a majority, has become a just-sharpened blade to cut through the faits accomplis handed out by the YSRCP, which enjoys a brute majority of 151 in the 175-member Assembly.

Acting on the advice of senior legal counsel Jandhya Ravi Shankar and other associates, the TDP invoked an arcane provision of the Legislative Council Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business to raise opposition to the two bills pertaining to the capital passed by the Assembly. Rule 71, which has no precedent in the Telugu states and allows Council members to express disapproval of a government policy, is essentially a no-confidence motion, Shankar told #KhabarLive. Blindsided by what was clearly a delaying tactic—the Council only enjoys advisory powers and cannot stall a bill indefinitely—the YSRCP fell into the TDP’s trap by raising strong objections to the discussion allowed by the chairman, alleging that it would “set a wrong and undemocratic precedent”.

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In response, the chairman, TDP legislator Shariff Mohammad Ahmed, exercised his discretionary power to refer the two bills to select committees comprising state legislators. The committees can deliberate on the matter for up to three months, following which the bills will be reintroduced in the legislature with suggestions. The YSRCP, which had mulled abolishing the Council in December after it recommended changes to two other bills—to enable separate commissions for SCs and STs, and to replace Telugu with English as the medium of instruction across schools—now had a pressing reason to set the ball in motion.

The resolution to abolish the Upper House has to be sent to the Centre for necessary follow-up action, but it could be a while before the BJP-led Government takes it up, sources say. There are more pressing concerns before the Lok Sabha, which is currently in session. Once the proposal is drafted into a Bill and passed by both Houses of Parliament, it will be sent to the President for assent. “Abolishing the Council is a painful decision for us, knowing that our people would be sitting on those benches next year,” says Satyanarayana. “The TDP left us no choice.”

“The YSRCP government has become the fool in this issue. Despite realising that the TDP has no alternative to gain momentum on the capital issue, it failed to use the technicality of the rule to take the bill back to the Assembly without amendment and pass it immediately. By disapproving specific government policies, the Council had in effect rejected the bills, and the Assembly could pass them again,” says a retired Andhra Pradesh legislature secretary. “Now the Jagan government looks despotic. It has betrayed a raging hurry to push its agenda through without debate,” he says. The YSRCP refused to nominate members to either of the eight-member committees constituted to review the bills even as the TDP, the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) and the BJP finalised their lists.

“Only a dictator could fume when the House debates four bills out of 38 that have been passed without a hitch,” says MLC and former TDP Minister Nara Lokesh, who has been nominated to the select committee on the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation Bill, 2020. “I could not be more proud of our MLCs, who have displayed remarkable integrity and resisted temptations of power and money. Over 67 per cent of them are from backward classes.

The Council is, in fact, a chamber where previously unrepresented classes have found a voice for the first time,” says Chandrababu Naidu. “If we lose it, so be it, but we will keep fighting. This is what I tell my party: Jagan is acting with vengeance, and we will come back with a vengeance.” By creating a smokescreen around the development of Amaravati, the YSRCP has not just destroyed wealth, but also lost the trust of investors and the common man, Naidu alleges. “The country is grappling with the slowest pace of growth estimated in a decade. But this government is not undertaking any capital expenditure.

Instead of attracting investors, it is boycotting Davos, chasing away Lulu, Reliance and Asian Pulp and Paper, and setting the state on an irreversible path of decline. All of us, including the BJP, have been working to create wealth, but the Andhra Pradesh government is in no position to fulfil the aspirations of the people,” he says. A recent report about Kia Motors relocating its $1.1 billion manufacturing facility out of Anantapur in Rayalaseema has since been refuted by the company and by the state government, which is trying to develop an EV cluster in the region.

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Naidu is sharply critical of the government’s move to reserve 75 per cent of private jobs for locals. “Generally, when an industry is set up, the locals benefit the most—and this has been the norm in Andhra Pradesh. If every state starts to overtly impose such restrictions just to make a political statement, where will our people go? They are employed everywhere today.” The legislation to make English-medium education mandatory, while progressive, has sparked protests by Karnataka, which wants Kannada-medium schools in Andhra Pradesh to continue to operate.

Taking the theme of the three capitals further, the YSRCP government has drawn attention to the need for decentralised administration and effective governance at the village level by setting up a grid of village secretariats employing over 2,66,000 local youth. The experiment, which may cost the state Rs 4,000 crore in yearly salaries, strives to bring administration—including, in a recent pilot, old-age pensions to over 42 lakh people—to the doorstep. As is to be expected, the TDP is unhappy about the initiative, alleging that it is needless in the age of e-governance and that it vests YSRCP party functionaries with vast powers. A bigger concern is a return to the abolished karanam and munsif system that the
YSRCP government is said to be considering to regularise revenue records across 21,848 villages.

To allay concerns about the capital and the economy, the Jagan government has displayed an ironbound commitment to its flagship welfare promises. Direct money transfers under Amma Vodi, a novel programme to extend a yearly financial assistance of Rs 15,000 to mothers from below-poverty-line families to send their children to school, are sure to boost the Chief Minister’s popularity.

The government has allocated Rs 6,456 crore for the scheme for the fiscal year 2020. Former TDP Finance Minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu alleges that this sum is not allocated as a special grant, but is drawn from ST, SC and other sub-plans. The state’s share in fund devolution has come down by 0.2 per cent as per the 15th Finance Commission. Addressing a post-Budget press conference, Finance Minister Buggana Rajendranath Reddy rued that the Centre had continued to ignore the state’s revenue deficit of Rs 19,000 crore. “We were supposed to get financial support for backward areas along the lines of the Bundelkhand package.

What we have received till now is a paltry amount.

Reimbursements for Polavaram expenses are also delayed,” he said, adding that the state was running a tight ship and had saved Rs 1,900 crore through reverse tendering. The state government has allocated Rs 25,000 crore to complete ongoing infrastructure projects—and this is not including the Polavaram irrigation project, which the government has promised to complete by 2021. Another Rs 30,000 crore would be spent to alleviate drought in Rayalaseema—which needs irrigation and jobs more than it does a high court promised to it in the Sribagh Pact of 1937.

A shortfall in the state’s own projected revenues, including GST, is likely to contribute to further delays in completion of projects. Excise revenue, too, is expected to fall in the coming months as a result of phased prohibition, even if the Chief Minister’s Daedalian approach to ridding the state of an unshakeable liquor problem has already won him advance acclaim. One thing has become clear. There is no dissuading Jagan Mohan Reddy from his cause. #KhabarLive

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