Forty-year-old Biplab* rests under the shade of a large construction machine, as he wakes from an afternoon nap. "We are all from West Bengal and we have been here for the last three to four months. There are people from across the country; Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and even other parts of Andhra Pradesh," he says, pointing to a group of workers who are spread out under construction machines on an empty patch of land.
While tall towers under construction are the only thing visible from the spot, just a few kilometres away are several agricultural fields, situated on perhaps some of the most fertile soil in Andhra Pradesh. This stark contrast is evident as one travels through the heart of Amaravati, the 'world-class capital’ that was being built from scratch by the previous Andhra Pradesh government.
Amaravati has been a contentious project since its inception, and while heavy construction is underway, in recent times, there is ambiguity on the ground. Most works sanctioned by the government have come to a grinding halt, even as those undertaken by private companies continue, albeit slowly. What changed was that on May 23, the state got a new Chief Minister – YSRCP President Jagan Mohan Reddy, who won by a large majority, ousting his predecessor and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu.
"Before May, we were working at a very fast pace. Since then, things have slowed down. We are hearing things like construction may stop or we may be asked to leave and come back after a few months. We are dependent on this work to send money back to our families at home," says another worker near Nelapadu village, where construction work is underway.
The Amaravati dream
Amaravati was the brainchild of Chandrababu Naidu, who envisioned a massive megacity encompassing the area of 29 villages between Vijayawada and Guntur. For this, the state government had to acquire fertile land along the Krishna riverbank that could assure two to three harvests a year. Despite facing hurdles, Naidu was determined to go ahead.
In many cases, the land wasn't acquired but ‘pooled’ under a separate law that the state government passed in 2014, called the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) Act. Under the state’s Land Pooling Scheme (LPS), those owning land in the capital region could volunteer to offer it up to the state government for a portion of the land to be returned to the owner, as a developed plot.
However, with the change of guard, many who have already given up their land are now uncertain as to what will happen. "We were dependent on agriculture but since this is the core capital region, we had to give up our land for pooling. We are now working as coolies in the agricultural fields of a neighbouring village. Now that Jagan has come, we have to see what will happen to our lands," says Mahesh Babu, a farmer from Thullur.
Who is Amaravati for?
The capital project also begs the question – who is it being built for? Who are the people who will voluntarily move to Amaravati?
Political observers say that while Amaravati was marketed as an inclusive mega-city, it was a project largely undertaken for the Kammas, the community from which Naidu hails from. "Besides real estate developers, a lot of people from Hyderabad and Vijayawada bought land and we heard that many NRIs who have settled mainly in the US also bought land," says Narasimha, a farmers rights activist.
A joke displayed at a prominent hotel in Vijayawada perhaps sums this up best. 'Maaku America sambandham voddu, Amaravati sambandham kavali,' it states. (We don't want bridegroom requests from America. We want them from Amravati.)
Naidu examining a layout of Amaravati during his tenure
However, with the TDP no longer in power, many landowners are now skeptical about moving to the capital city, observers say.
"Who benefitted from Amaravati? It is the land owners. Several farmers have sold off their land but those who purchased it, may now have more to lose. An interesting aspect is that while the contracts were given to large MNCs, the contractors for supplying units like sand and cement were largely from the Kamma community," says Gutta Rohith from the Human Rights Forum (HRF).
"It will be interesting to see if the 'contractor-babu' nexus now shifts and if members of the Reddy community will replace them," he adds.
Prominent filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma also quipped about this during one of his visits to Vijayawada after the YSRCP's win, where he said that his next film would be called 'Kamma Rajyam lo Kadapa Redlu' (Kadapa Reddy in the Kamma kingdom).
There are also concerns regarding what would happen to the large population of locals presently residing in the capital region. While many may migrate to other cities, a large chunk of them, especially marginalised tenant farmers, may end up in the capital's unorganised sector.
"This is a big issue. There is no provision for the unorganised sector in Amaravati and not a day can pass in a large city, without them," Rohith adds.
Ever since he took over, Jagan has made his intentions clear. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi in May, just days after he took over, the Chief Minister alleged that there was a big land scam in Amaravati and accused his predecessor Naidu of resorting to "insider trading".
Terming it as a sensational scam, Jagan said the lands of Naidu and his "benamis" were also exempted from land pooling under which lands of farmers and others were acquired. "Even under the land pooling, he paid compensation to whoever he wanted and at whatever rate he wanted," said Jagan.
Reflective of their public stand, only a meagre Rs 500 crore was allocated for the development of the capital city in the state budget for 2019-20, earlier this month.
What happens now
Speaking to TNM, a senior CRDA official in the know, says, "The previous government had sanctioned around Rs 51,000 crore worth of works and the state coffers are not in a position to support this expenditure. Works of around Rs 8,000 crore have been executed, while some balance work is in different stages of execution."
"We raised around Rs 2,000 crore through bonds and the Centre has released another Rs 1,500 crore for capital construction, and Rs 430-odd crore for the Smart Cities Mission. All these funds have gone into initiation and construction of capital works; from trunk infrastructure, to government complexes like the interim Secretariat, High Court, and quarters for MLAs, MPs, Ministers, HC judges, IAS officers, and government employees," he explains.
The CRDA official also points out that the state government had been attempting to get a loan from the World Bank for the last few years, which was 'hanging fire'. In fact, the World Bank's website lists the 'Amaravati Sustainable Infrastructure and Institutional Development Project' as 'dropped'.
"To complete these works, we need another Rs 40,000 to 50,000 crore. It is a question of tying up funds. Factual reports has been submitted to the Centre briefing them of all these things. Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) worth more than Rs 50,000 crore have also been submitted to the Niti Aayog," the official says.
"If we allow engineering works to go on without flow of cash, it will be a problem. The state government is saddled with debts worth several thousand crore, which it inherited from the previous administration," he adds.
"The construction has come to a halt but I don't think Amaravati is going to be junked. The halt will not be indefinite. In the next few days, they may release a white paper on Amaravati like they had done earlier on the state's finances," says Gutta Rohith, "However, I think they are going to sit down and talk about this. It won't be accorded as much priority as was previously done. I don't think even a fraction of that will be accorded.”
"We have proof on record to suggest that Naidu may have diverted the Centre's funds and benefitted his benamis. In a month or two, we will be able to understand all issues, fix priorities, means to raise the capital and take the construction of Amaravati forward," a source close to the Chief Minister says.
It seems for now that Jagan may settle for a smaller region as the core capital area and may not go for grandiose attempts like his predecessor.
"At the end of the day, the city has to evolve. It has to gradually grow as it develops and more people start migrating to it," the source adds.