Is Capital Fever Making Vijayawada Ill?

Vivekananda Nemana and Suresh Ghattamaneni
Grist Media
Dreams of a world class Vijayawada.

Every day at dusk, when the heat of the Vijayawada afternoon retreats and the evening rush begins, Mallikarjuna Rao Medasani, the octogenarian proprietor of the SSS Hotel, salutes a garlanded portrait of legendary Communist leader Puchalapalli Sundarayya and counts out a thick wad of cash.

The minuscule restaurant has a thatched roof and serves only soft, cottony idlis with fat packets of buttermilk. Medasani has decorated the walls with pictures of freedom fighters and famous communists; an ancient radio plays old Telugu songs. With the wizened old proprietor in his torn banyan and lungi, and the nostalgic reflection of fluorescent light on blue paint, every detail of the SSS Hotel evokes a bygone era in urban Indian life – except the big-bellied customers pay for their simple meals with unusually large notes.

Rs 500 note after Rs 500 note, and the occasional Rs 1,000.

Medasani takes the bills without grumbling about making change. As his drawer rapidly fills with cash, the old self-proclaimed Communist instead fumes that money is destroying his beloved country and the city where he spent most of his life.

 “There’s no one like Sundarayya anymore,” he wheezes, referring to the Marxist in the garlanded portrait who helped lead an armed peasant revolt against the Nizam of Hyderabad in the late 1940s. “In those days the Communist Party really meant something. Now the politicians are all into money culture. Even the Communists take money. What India really needs is a dictatorship like China.”

He keeps counting his money while this remark hangs in the air.

 “People will do anything for money these days,” he goes on, accepting around Rs 600 from a group of teenagers nursing a bulging take-home parcel. “It’s like society has no more morals. They’ll even murder their wives, just because they didn’t bring enough dowry.”

Bearded and genial, Medasani seems oblivious to the amusing juxtaposition of his anti-capitalist tirade with his lucrative buttermilk-and-idli venture, where a single idli costs Rs 13. Perhaps, to him – and to the rest of the city, especially the section that frequents the SSS Hotel – this is no irony at all. Vijayawada is a city of many ancient and contradictory histories, but it is also a place with money on its mind.

 “The people of Vijayawada, I found,” says VVM Krishna, the Vijayawada chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry, “are, like Jews, a small but very successful people. They’ve got an appetite for rising in life, for catching the first prey” – he makes a claw out of his hand – “for go-getting. They’ll go anywhere, even to a desert and make gold.”

* * *

Within the next decade, Vijayawada and its surroundings to the immediate south of the Krishna River will become the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. The state government is acquiring 30,000 acres of prime farmland between Vijayawada and Guntur, a smaller city about 30km away, to build what it promises will be a metropolis unprecedented in India. The chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, and his administration are pushing the capital forward on a war footing; proponents repeat the words “World Class” with the breathless fervor of a mantra. The Singapore planning firms Surbana International Consultants and Jurong International will – mysteriously, at no charge at all to the government of Andhra Pradesh – design the city’s new World Class roads and bridges, its Eco-Friendly buildings and World Class parks. Then Japanese firms will build them, in an arrangement that Naidu secured personally from the Japanese prime minister.

Although the details won’t be clear until Surbana International and Jurong unveil their master plan in June, administrative sources say the city will, among other things, be largely powered by new World Class solar energy farms, and house several World Class convention centers, sports complexes, and a Mega Food park. The government plans to build an IT hub, for software, and a separate electronics hub, for hardware. The capital will also include a tourist resort along the lines of the ultra-posh Sentosa Island in Singapore, a brand new metro rail, and the world’s largest ring road – a 5 billion US dollar beltway that circles around the city for 180 kilometers. The whole thing is expected to cost at least one lakh crore rupees – money that the state government doesn’t have, but hopes will come from the Center

Yet Naidu’s vision of an ultramodern Shangri-La – at least, what’s been presented so far – is ambitious enough to seem unreal. Indeed, with all the talk of Singapore and Japan, the new city hardly sounds Indian at all. But there is precedent: Vijayawada has, for at least the past half century, been a place of escape. People from this city have long shaped the political and economic landscape of Andhra Pradesh, and left their imprint on Telugu communities around the world. It is the sort of place that you leave once you’re old enough, only to find that everyone around you is from there too.

Now the tables have ostensibly turned, bringing in a wave of speculative capital. As new money collides with old institutions like the 28-year-old SSS Hotel, upsetting the balances, entrenched dynamics of caste and class lurk beneath the capital plans like the silhouettes of sharks. Whether the new capital becomes a successful metropolis or a victim to its own hubris, one thing is clear: the fingerprints of the old Vijayawada, of its ethos, are all over those fever dreams.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Medasani says, curtly ending our conversation, “I have some customers to attend to.”

Something in the Water

In speeches and statements to the press, Naidu has declared that the new capital will not only compete with Hyderabad – a city that, as the chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, he helped transform into a tech hub – but far surpass it.

“Cyberabad, an IT hub, had been the only source of income for Hyderabad and it was developed during my previous tenure as chief minister,” he told a group of engineering students in February. “But with the division of the state, we lost Hyderabad. Now we will develop a new capital, which would be hundred times better [sic] than Hyderabad.”

This Field of Dreams-style attitude gets an enthusiastic reception in Vijayawada. “This area has the best potential for Andhra Pradesh because it’s so close to the coast,” says NSS Vasu, looking out of his window at a row of shiny German cars parked along a pastoral landscape. “That’s the reason why we selected Chandrababu Naidu, to bring out this place’s potential.”

Vasu oversees Vijayawada’s only Mercedes-Benz dealership, a glimmering complex that looms over green paddy fields and grey, unfinished constructions on the airport highway. Dressed in black and sporting dark stubble, the 34-year-old manager greets us with a determined air of confidence. The luxury car business has been booming since 2012, he says, when the Telangana statehood movement appeared close to fruition, and rumors spread that Vijayawada might become the next capital of residual Andhra Pradesh.

“In the last two years, we’ve been growing like anything,” Vasu tells us. “In 2010 we used to sell only six cars each month. Now we sell twelve. One hundred percent growth.”

One of capital fever’s symptoms was an appetite for expensive cars, fueled by a prodigious boom in real estate. In Tullur, a village of less than 8,000 people that will become the epicenter of the new city, automobile dealers set up tents in November to sell expensive cars to newly cash-rich farmers. “There was always money in Vijayawada. Earlier, exporters, industrialists and landlords bought our cars. People who got rich from trading tobacco, or jewelry. Now all the customers come from real estate.” Vasu gestures out the window. “This land is worth so many crores. Our cars start at 35 lakhs, which a lot of people around here can afford these days. So why not buy a Benz?”

The sleek new capital that Naidu intends to build technically falls outside Vijayawada city limits, across the river in a rural patch called the Vijayawada-Guntur-Tenali-Mangalgiri area, or the VGTM.Land here was always expensive: the city is geographically hemmed in, and British irrigation projects on the Krishna River ensured the farmland beyond remained particularly fertile. But property values started rising exponentially all over the VGTM around two years ago, when the prospect of Vijayawada as the new capital first came up. We can be less surprised, perhaps, when land rates around Delhi or Bombay or Bangalore explode – but this is Vijayawada, a city hardly bigger than Madurai, where prime property values rival some of the most expensive cities in the world.

“Farmland used to cost about 10 to 15 lakhs per acre, but now it sells for ten times as much,” says Srinivas Kumar Thota, a real estate dealer who works in the area. “In some places, an acre literally costs five crores. And prices in the city have at least doubled. On Bandar Road” – Vijayawada’s main commercial drag – “the going rate is over two lakhs per square yard.” That comes out to around $3,300. To put it in perspective, land in midtown Manhattan is only slightly more expensive, at about $3,600 per square yard.

“A lot of transactions happen every day,” Thota continues. “Officially, about 100 crores worth of property is registered each month in the Krishna district. That’s going by government rates. Unofficially, the actual value of that property is about ten times as much – so we have had about 1000 crores worth of property deals each month for the past year.” Although the rate of new deals has dipped since he told us this in December, especially as the state government’s acquisition process for the capital gained steam, Thota and others familiar with the market say prices are going to keep rising.

The intense speculation puts the actual city of Vijayawada in a peculiar position: prices are too high to even consider selling. A businessman who runs a large Hyundai showroom on Bandar Road tells us that the high prices have made millionaires out of many ordinary people, but on paper alone. “Someone might come in and offer me a fortune for this place,” he says, gesturing around his office. “But I can’t sell it! Because then where will I go?” A sense of vertigo now occupies the streets of Vijayawada – a city of right angles and crowded, narrow lanes, with canals cutting through like hairline fractures – as new, ostentatious wealth flows in from outside of town, while small city life stubbornly goes on as usual.

Karl Marx Road, a major commercial center in Vijayawada. Photo by Suresh Ghattamaneni

So many towns have been hit with sudden, real estate-fueled booms that the imagery became a contemporary Indian cliché: the farmer in Haryana flaunting his new SUV, or the English language institutes mushrooming in villages around Nagpur. But Vijayawada wards off journalistic appellations of ‘sleepy town’, ‘middle-of-nowhere’ and ‘out-of-nothing’ with its own extensive origin myths.

One legend dates Vijayawada’s origins back to Arjuna, who fired an arrow through the nearby Indrakiladri hill so the river Krishna could find her way to the Bay of Bengal. Another story holds that this was where Durga rested after killing Mahishasura. The city passed through the hands of the Chalukyas, the Kakatiyas, the Vijayanagaram Empire, the Mughals and finally the British, who in the 1800s built Vijayawada into a major urban center.

And in the 20th century, many larger-than-life Andhra families came from the Vijayawada region. Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (known as NTR), the superstar actor who founded Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and became one of the state’s most powerful chief ministers in the 1980s, was born in a nearby village. Some of the highest-profile Andhra moguls spent their formative years in Vijayawada, like the media tycoon Ramoji Rao, once one of the most powerful men in south India, or the Mumbai filmmaker and producer Ram Gopal Varma. The Telugu diaspora in the United States – three quarters of a million strong by some reports – largely consists of people from the Krishna District, according to anecdata.

“For most of the 20th  century, this was a very important place that attracted a lot of people from the region – especially from the Telugu-speaking districts under the rule of the Madras Presidency,” says SV Srinivas, who hails from Vijayawada and is currently a professor of humanities at Azim Premji University. “Almost all publishing happened in Chennai or Vijayawada. Very influential Telugu newspapers were based in Vijayawada. It was a very important center for the film industry because that’s where almost all the film distribution happened.”

But after Hyderabad became the capital of post-independence Andhra Pradesh in 1956, Srinivas explains, Vijayawada’s fortunes changed. An exodus of talent and investment gradually drained city of its importance. As its entrepreneurs and intellectuals moved to Hyderabad, as its engineers and doctors expatriated to the United States, as the politics of it all transformed, Vijayawada fell into relative obscurity, a city crouched in the shadows of its own legends. “So you’re actually coming back to a city that’s been vacated previously by the intelligentsia and the middle class.”

Now that Hyderabad has been absorbed into the state of Telangana (which broke away from Andhra Pradesh in June 2014), capitaldom carries a certain promise of redemption.So far, though, most talent flocking back to Vijayawada is of the khaddar capitalist variety. A common sight in the months after the 2014 election was men in white shirts and white pants prowling through the VGTM in SUVs, fielding phone calls non-stop and making huge land deals on the spot. So much cash was exchanged that it spawned a cottage industry of rentable cash counting machines. Naturally, all that cash also a needs a place to park. Local traders say that at one point in 2014, 100kg of gold – worth about Rs 25 crore – was changing hands every day in the city alone. If true, Vijayawada would account for 4 percent of entire national gold trade, according to the World Gold Council. And while there has been plenty of genuine business activity – over 700 new businesses registered in the city last year, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry – nothing quite flows like hot, liquid capital.

Which works out just dandy for the luxury car industry. “Once the capital is up and running, we expect a lot more sales.” Vasu, the Mercedes salesman, furrows his brow, grins, and slowly nods his head. “Oh yeah, it’s gonna be big.”

* * *

The automotive industry was big here well before the Benz. It used to be that you couldn’t drive a truck in South India without taking it to Vijayawada at some point, because that was where you got it repaired. The city sits at an important trading crossroads, with highways extending to Hyderabad to the west, Chennai to the south, and Kolkata to the north – so it was only natural when the country’s first “Autonagar,” or a sprawling business cluster of mechanics and chopshops, emerged here in the late 1960s. The Autonagar mechanics were so good, the legend went, that if you parked your Chrysler there you’d have an exact copy within a week.

We visit Autonagar on a rainy night so dark that even the streetlights seem huddled against the wind. But the shops are awake: in the dim fluorescent light we see workmen hammering, drilling, welding, kerplunking. Crews dismantle the skeletons of trucks and buses under tin sheds. It feels right that Autonagar should have a tall place in the city’s lore.

“Vijayawada’s entire reputation comes from Autonagar,” declares K Shanmugam, a lean Tamilian wearing designer eyeglasses, who has been working in Autonagar since he moved here in 1969. “It used to be that people came from all over India to work and learn in Autonagar, because this is where the entire Indian motor field developed.”

Autonagar, with its powerful trade unions, is full of tales about upward mobility: stories of lorry drivers becoming transportation moguls, mechanics becoming politicians, of the possibility of tearing away from humble beginnings – provided they didn’t fall into the trap of alcohol or debt. Shanmugam himself began working in Autonagar as a child; he now manages a major shipping company.

“Those were the days,” agrees N Suribabu, a mechanic who has been in Autonagar for twenty years. He moved from a small Andhra village 20 years ago as an apprentice, and now he owns his own workshop – the land itself, he claims, was worth Rs 3 crore. “People even took the skills they learned here to foreign.”  

But Autonagar is dying, poisoned perhaps by its own success – over a generation or two, everybody eventually left. “You can’t hire quality workers anymore,” Shanmogum complains. “Look at this place. No one with skills wants to work here.” The workshops have been closing up and, increasingly, leasing out the space as warehouses for banks and pharmaceutical companies.

His own children live in Canada; Suribabu’s son studies at the Birla Insitute of Technology and Science in Goa. Shanmugam seems offended when asked if his children never thought of taking up his line of work. “We educated them so they wouldn’t have to,” he says. “Everybody does that.”  

* * *

Education is enormously important in Vijayawada. There are so many schools and colleges in the Vijayawada area – engineering colleges alone in the VGTM area number around 70.

Sajaya Kakarla is a 50-year-old feminist activist who runs an organization called the Caring Citizens Collective in Hyderabad. Having grown up in a Communist family in Vijayawda, she argues that that strong culture of education changed the face of the city. “Education was given utmost importance and hence a lot of peasant families sold their land to educate their children,” she says. “Educating women was given particular importance – something which the government of India is talking about now, though people’s movements ensured it happened in Vijayawada back in the 1950s itself.”

Vijayawada’s emphasis on education was essential for its people to thrive, whether at tech companies in Hyderabad and Bangalore, or in the US, or wherever opportunities beckoned. Srinivas, the humanities professor, says, “Whatever the reason, people from the region put a huge investment into educating their children. It crosses class, caste and gender boundaries. It’s not unusual for people to leave a village to study in town, and because they were educated they could easily move [to other cities].” But with the rise of the BPO, and the private engineering college, education became more competitive – and more like an investment.

It is difficult to overstate the profound impact the cult of engineering has had on middle-class Andhra Pradesh. Fueled by the rapid proliferation of lucrative software jobs in the mid-2000s, the various divisions of engineering practically became an elaborate social hierarchy, with students in the most difficult majors and institutes ranked at the top, and while those in most non-science or math majors were ranked at the bottom. An entire generation of students was diverted into engineering, and education became less about learning than its promise as another speculative venture – you invested in whatever promised the most returns, which typically meant rote learning of science and math as social sciences and arts were tossed out the window.  

This is especially true in Vijayawada. A common question in the city’s engineering colleges is, ‘How much did you pay for your seat?’ Vijayawada is up to its neck in coaching centers, that quintessentially Andhra institution of teaching to the test, literally any test. The granddaddies of this attitude towards education, the institutional epicenters, are the Sri Chaitanya and Narayana Institutes – two titans of the corporatized education world famous for churning out entrance exam toppers and guaranteeing results no matter what the cost. Both institutes first gathered steam in Vijayawada, and now they are swallowing up other private institutes at an alarming rate, including in other states.

Chaitanya and Narayana have also taken the commodification of education to an extreme. A younger cousin of Vivek’s attended a Narayana boarding school in Hyderabad, housed in a drab building in a congested part of the city. She and her 13-year-old classmates were placed on a draconian regimen: they woke before dawn to study, attended classes in the basement all day, went back to their rooms after dark where they were forced to study again before they slept. They never saw the light of day, until an outbreak of rickets – a bone disease caused by lack of exposure to sunlight – forced the administration to grudgingly let the children play on the roof for half an hour each day.

The goal for these regimens, if not the IITs or IIMs, is nearly always America. It is no coincidence that Hyderabad is, by far, the largest source of Indian students in the US According to a study by the Brookings Institute, the US Consulate in Hyderabad issued over 26,000 student visas between 2008 and 2012 – nearly twice as many as the next runner-up, Mumbai. Nor is it surprising that white-collar professionals from the Vijayawada area tend to dominate the Telugu cultural associations of North America.

“What kind of education is Vijayawada offering today?” continues Srinivas. “The Narayana and Chaitanya model, which they’ve managed to export from Vijayawada and Guntur to nearly everywhere else in India. We have to ask ourselves, is this really what we want?”

That’s a pertinent question, because P Narayana, the CEO of the Narayana Institutes, is also the urban minister of Andhra Pradesh, the man most responsible for the new capital.

First, Escape

3. Sachin Tendulkar and Potluri Vara Prasad at PVP Square's inauguration. Photo courtesy PVP Square via Facebook.

One of the most symbolic monuments to the new Vijayawada – apart from the new capital itself, on which construction won’t begin until June at least – is the newly-opened PVP Square mall, which sits on Bandar Road near the city’s central Benz Circle. The mall is akin to any upscale shopping complex in a major city – sweeping skylights, foreign brands, vaguely perfumed air, college students milling at the food court – but it is the first of its kind in Vijayawada, and gets as busy as a train station on the weekends. Sachin Tendulkar came down from Mumbai to inaugurate the Rs. 125 crore complex last August. “It will be a great attraction,” the star cricketer, decked out in reflective sunglasses and a thick garland of flowers, assured the adoring crowd.

“It was a very dumb business decision,” the mall’s promoter Potluri Vara Prasad tells us, because it took too long to build and doesn’t bring in nearly the kind of returns as his other ventures. But the eponymously-named mall, like the PVP Siddhartha Institute of Technology, an engineering college that he also constructed, was his way of “giving back” to the city where he grew up, he says. “I wanted it to be world-class, and for the city to become that way.”

Potluri, founder of PVP Ventures, finances movies and builds malls with theaters to watch those movies in. The conference room of his sleek Hyderabad office bears illuminated trophies from the Hyderabad Hotshots and the Kerala Blasters FC, the professional badminton and cricket teams he respectively owns and co-owns. His story epitomizes a distinctly Vijayawadan ideal of success – you could imagine it fashioned into the plot of a Telugu film (produced, possibly, by Potluri himself). He dreamed relentlessly of escape. Born into a middle class family, he worked his way through college in Australia, scrubbing toilets and pumping petrol. But he was really after an American visa. It took him seven dogged attempts.

When he was finally granted entry in 1996, Potluri started an IT services company called Procon Inc that he later sold for millions. After an Indian company acquired an analytics firm he founded, in 2005, Potluri moved back to India, sensing opportunity and the chance to build a bigger business – a decision he says he would later regret. He started PVP Ventures in 2006, and began producing commercial Tamil and Telugu movies in 2010, including blockbusters like Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam and the 2012 Naan Ee, which starred an animated fly.

He says his ambitions were partly a result of his surroundings. “Even a farmer in Vijayawada shows enterprise. If he’s got five acres of land, he’ll sell one to send his son to study in the US. Isn’t that enterprise?” says Potluri, who, in his mid-forties, is losing hair but maintains a youthful face, and speaks an oblong, Americanized English. “People in Vijayawada are well-wired, well-networked, and well-informed in terms of what each person is up to. But the biggest thing is their appetite for risk – the ability to handle uncertainty is ingrained into the mindset.”

We were told over and over again, not just by Potluri, that the people of Vijayawada are natural entrepreneurs, inborn with a certain zeal that sent them to other Indian cities and around the world in pursuit of success. “Must be something in the Krishna water,” the explanation went.
With his professed hometown pride, and his ventures in real estate and entertainment, we imagined Potluri would be especially enthusiastic about Vijayawada’s future as a capital city. After all, he says he is the only entrepreneur to come back to Vijayawada after leaving. Yet he is ambivalent about the government’s plans. “Vijayawada needs to graduate from a small town mentality to a big city mindset,” he says. “It is not a meritocratic society. For a first-generation entrepreneur like me, who doesn’t have the kind of connections older families have, it is very difficult.” (Of course, Potluri, the head of a Rs. 850-crore enterprise, has made some connections of his own: the YSRCP, TDP’s chief opposition party, asked him to contest from Vijayawada during the last general election, though he ultimately chose not to.) Take his mall, which, despite its popularity among Vijayawadans, took six excruciating years to complete. “Every single person got in the way, so it was a very difficult process,” he says. “In India we clear everything for large corporations. But entrepreneurship really happens with the small and medium-sized enterprises, and that’s where India constantly ranks towards the bottom of the barrel.”

"An eclectic cocktail of culture, talent, sciences and arts is what makes a place a cosmopolitan city,” he adds. “Will Vijayawada become such a metropolis? Time will decide, but it’s not there right now.”

Potluri is not the only entrepreneur to complain of claustrophobia in Vijayawada. The city embodies a peculiar paradox of modern Andhra Pradesh: it simultaneously opens up to global investment, sending bright students abroad, and indulges in buzz words like “World Class” while still feeling insular.

“This is a gossip kind of crowd,” sighs 27-year-old Avinash Chukkapalli, the scion of Popular Shoe Mart, one of Andhra Pradesh’s biggest footwear retailers and an iconic Vijayawada business. “There are a couple of clubs, but you don’t see any young people going out. You only see old men getting drunk at those places. People are scared to go out because it is guaranteed that someone will see them and call their parents, thinking they’re doing a great service.”

We meet in the main warehouse of the business, which he runs with his father, uncles and cousins. Tall, hefty and boyish, Avinash is directing harried employees darting in and out of his spotless white office, while outside, workers stack cardboard boxes of shoes on endless metal shelves.A large painting outside the office portrays a bespectacled man at a desk, his thick eyebrows knitted into a severe gaze: Avinash’s grandfather Pitchaiah, who started Popular Shoe Mart in 1962.

Pitchaiah was a dedicated Communist. His idea was that he could build a profitable business by selling affordable footwear in every village, and use some of those profits for social good – for instance, by distributing blankets to the poor every winter, a practice that the company continues to this day. Yet he was also shrewd enough for his family to enjoy an amply privileged life. Avinash says he always wanted to work for his grandfather’s business, and preserve his grandfather’s core values – like fair pay for workers, or social service – but he’s no communist. Pitchaiah traveled to the Soviet Union and China for business training, and for many years rode to work on a bicycle. Avinash went to the US to study, and, recently, purchased his second BMW.

The sensibilities of his rural customers have changed, says Avinash. They prefer the bright studio lighting and mirrors he introduced to the plywood and plain boxes of Avinash’s grandfather’s time. But Avinash is skeptical about any transformation of the culture of Vijayawada, which he often finds stifling and narrow-minded. “The capital might cause the city to change, but it won’t happen soon,” he says. “Internally no one can change Vijayawada. The connections are too strong, too controversial. Local people are already worried about outsiders coming in. ‘We need to protect our money, protect ourselves.’ That’s the thinking that prevails here.”

The government intends the new capital to become a thriving hub of commerce, education, healthcare and culture. But without openness to change among the city’s existing networks, which control the levers of investment, those plans can become derailed. “Vijayawada has been held back too much by Communism and caste,” Avinash adds. “They created an outdated mindset that still remains.”

* * *

Folks from other parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana describe the Vijayawada’s dwellers as the overbearing cousin who hogs all the attention at family gatherings, shows off too much and elbows their way into too many photographs. Something about the city resonates deep within the Andhra psyche, striking at the roots of the state's unsteady embrace of modernism and vast, international capital.

“We must understand that only Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh can match the neoliberal mindset you see in the newer parts of Hyderabad,” says activist Kakarla. “If you consider a hi-tech city and a glitzy capital as development, then Vijayawada is the obvious choice. It’s all about the reproduction of wealth and those who are capable of reproducing it will be the ones deciding the capital.”

This is the flip-side of the Great Hyphenated Andhra Dream: to study hard and settle in the US, to earn in dollars while never venturing far from home. This is why, perhaps, to an outsider, Vijayawada feels like a small town on steroids. Idli vendors make small fortunes, BMWs prowl along narrow lanes named after Marx, cheap posters advertise GMAT and GRE coaching, along with pictures of emaciated-looking exam toppers. The city aspires for wealth yet seems resistant to growth.

“The thing about our people is, we like to talk. Sometimes we overact,” says Rajendra Prasad, a former Lok Satta activist from Vijayawada, who has tried his hand at everything the city has to offer, from student politics to film distribution to construction. “Forget about the Prime Minister. Even if you want to meet Obama, a Vijayawada guy will tell you he can arrange a meeting. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. We just have that kind of confidence.” The city was even named for triumph: Vijayawada translates to “place of victory.”

“Everyone is a don here. Everyone feels like, ‘I have something behind me. I’ve got a following,’” a young entrepreneur named Siddharth Marupeddi tells us. We are sitting in his minimal office, a small room in the midst of an apartment complex parking lot, bare except for a desk, some couches and an elaborate wall mural that says ‘StartAP’. “The typical Vijayawada guy wants to get noticed everywhere he goes, he self-brands, he’s constantly reacting in some way. People here are highly motivated, but they also have a lot of ego.”

Originally from Visakhapatnam, Marupeddi founded StartAP, an organization to develop a startup culture in the city – which would seem straightforward enough in a city famed for entrepreneurship, but has been something of a tall order. “People here only know how to invest in land, or to send their kids to the US,” he says. “This is a big village rather than a city, since practically everyone knows each other. Yet people here feel like they are responsible for running the country.”

These People, Those People

It’s hard to have an honest conversation about Vijayawada without mentioning caste, though usually no one mentions it except through vague allusions to “these people,” or the “local mentality.” At the same time, it is nearly impossible to pin down the exact role caste plays in the rise and fall of the city – it just seems to be subtle and ever present, like an undercurrent. The city’s colleges, for instance, are full of stories about students maintaining lists of who belonged to which caste.

“Caste was entrenched to such an extent even in [the Communist movement],” recalls Kakarla, “that I remember someone telling me when I was moving closely with people of other castes associated with the party, ‘Ekkadi vallani akkade unchali’ [People should be kept in their place].”.

Many of the city’s most successful businessmen, politicians, landowners and film industry bigwigs belong to the Kamma community, which is seen as holding sway over the city’s economic and political life. NTR, for instance, was a Kamma, and as the state’s first chief minister from the community, enjoyed massive support in Vijayawada. In some ways, caste fellowship inspired the city’s enterprising culture. Harish Damodaran, in his book India’s New Capitalists, writes that while the “majority of early Kamma industrialists belonged to the landlord class, by virtue of being from a ‘peasant’ community they became at the same time role models for enterprising caste brethren of more humble stock.”

But the most important role caste played in Vijayawada was the way it intertwined with political power and access to resources. “It’s an all in one,” says Ravi Kumar, a land rights activist, of the new capital. “A blend of a sociopolitical model with a socioeconomic one that implies the dominance of a single caste.”

Vague as it might sound, Kumar’s comment refers to the controversy over the government’s intensity in establishing a new capital in the VGTM area, a decision that overrode the recommendations of a centrally-appointed capital selection committee, which warned that building the capital here would devastate the area’s fertile soil and displace too many farmers. Chandrababu Naidu was reportedly so irritated by the recommendation that he asked the committee to issue a second report. The official stance was that the Vijayawada area was centrally located, well-connected by road and rail, and a thriving center of trade and education (all true). But critics allege it was a politically motivated move that failed to consult with local stakeholders.

In September, Naidu announced in the state Assembly that the new capital would be built around Vijayawada. By October, the government began acquiring land. To obtain its 30,000 acres for the new capital, the government set up a land pooling system that offered farmers a 1,000sq yard residential plot and 200 to 300sq yards of commercial space in the capital for each acre they gave up, among other benefits. Though a number of farmers have refused to cede their lands in protest, unwilling to lose their livelihoods, most have agreed to the terms of the acquisition, expecting to get rich given the spectacular growth in property values.

Meanwhile, the roughly 35,000 sharecroppers and landless laborers who depend on the land get fewer benefits – a burden that activists say disproportionately falls on Dalit and other disadvantaged communities.

“The actual losers in this whole episode are landless cultivators, agricultural workers, and other communities that depend on the rural economy without owning land,” says Kumar. “And of course there’s a caste element to it, because the majority of the landowners are the economically stronger Kammas,” he adds, citing evidence from land records.

4. A view of MG Road in Vijayawada. Photo by Ben Dalton via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Naidu’s “Singapore model” for the new capital has plenty to interest the educated middle class. Though the full details won’t be clear until the master plan is released in June, there are provisions for numerous parks and forms of public transit, including a new metro rail. The city will be neatly divided into zones, according to a spokesperson for the state administration who requested anonymity. “There will be different spaces marked for industry, commerce, residences, government offices and entertainment, all of which will be well connected by the metro, railway and bus system,” she said.

Critics of the new capital worry that such a sanitized, rigid plan will have little space for those who work on the margins of the economy. “A lot of Dalit women, Backward Class women, even poor upper caste women sell vegetables from baskets, or maintain little stalls or hotels. That’s their livelihood,” says Gogu Shyamala, a writer, a Dalit rights activist and senior fellow at the Anveshi Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. “Have you asked them if they need the Singapore model? The physical labor force is made up of mostly Dalits, who live in little slums or surrounding villages. How will they mingle with a Singapore-style city, apart from scavenging or begging? Why don’t you ensure they become software engineers or go to America first?”

“All talk of the capital is about business centers, malls and wealthy communities, but not about the poorer half,” Shyamala adds. “We are cleanly dividing two worlds – a poor one, and a rich one.”

* * *

The existing city of Vijayawada is not so cleanly divided. In the city’s One Town slum, a Dalit and Muslim neighborhood tucked away behind a hill, Solomon Raju, the owner of a tea stall, is surprised to see visitors. “How did you even find this place?” he asks us. “Hardly anyone comes here.” Unlike most slums, One Town is quiet and rather pretty: trees line most of the main lane, and brightly painted houses are scattered across the hillside, connected to the road by makeshift stone steps. The railway station is at the bottom of the hill just beyond Raju’s tea shop, miniaturized and hectic from this vantage point; a tunnel connects the slum with the main road. The whole scene is a little reminiscent of Darjeeling.

Nearly a quarter of Vijayawada’s population lives in the city’s slums – the fourth largest slum population in the country, in terms of percentage – and here too, property values are rising tremendously.

“It used to be that no one wanted to live here,” says Raju, 32, a slight man with a horseshoe mustache. He points to a simple mauve construction across the street. “That building wasn’t even worth five lakhs a year ago. But the owner recently sold it for fifteen.”

But the residents of One Town hesitate to make a quick buck through real estate. “Where would we go if we sold our house?” asks Solomon’s uncle Augustine, a retired railway track repairman with a thin grey beard and Gandhi glasses. “The whole reason prices are so high is because there isn’t enough land available. People are even building houses way on top of the hill!”

The slums of Vijayawada are now in a vulnerable situation, says Anant Maringanti, an urban development expert who directs the Hyderabad Urban Lab. “Vijayawada is a city of canals, so all along the canals you find housing that started as slums and has improved over the years without any formal tenure and protectionism,” he says. “If the new capital depends on Vijayawada and Guntur, then all these areas can get gentrified. The waterfront is an area that everybody wants,” which could hurt residents without proper documentation.

Raju and Augustine are already facing a similar dilemma: the railway station – the busiest in south India – needs to expand to accommodate the new capital, and station authorities are looking to One Town.“They keep trying to evict us from our shops, claiming that this is their land. But we’ve been living here for many years,” says Solomon. “I’d still move though, if they gave me a decent flat in exchange. That, and a job for my son.”

White Collar

Gentrification has hit Vijayawada’s crime too.

In the 1980s, feuds between rival gangs roiled the city, dripping violence into its colleges and turning up dozens of the dead each year. One of the most powerful factions was headed by a young mobster named Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga Rao, who – sensing opportunity in frustrations about Kamma dominance – fashioned himself into a leader of the numerically stronger but less influential Kapu community. From a powerful crime family that controlled the city’s east end, “Tiger Ranga” won Assembly elections on a Congress Party ticket in 1985 – and enjoyed massive popular support as a strongman from a disenfranchised community. Ranga’s arch nemesis was another crime family scion named Devineni “Nehru” Rajsekhar, who joined NTR’s TDP as an Assemblyman in 1983 and drew support from the city’s Kammas. The Vangaveetis and the Devenenis had a relationship that was the stuff of Shakespearean drama: they were allies once, but after an extremely complex series of murders and revenge killings, the enmity between the clans fermented into a form of caste chauvinism that draped organized crime in sweeping notions of honor and vendetta. 

“In the 80s the TDP rose as a strong alternative to Congress, so that basically created new political avenues for warring groups,” explains Maringanti. “So some caste groups moved to the TDP, others became more prominent in the Congress – caste politics played out through struggles for municipal infrastructure, as some groups controlling trade unions and others controlled physical infrastructure and so on.”

By the late 1980s, NTR was chief minister and Ranga’s political career flourished as an MLA with the Opposition party – the Congress. But on a bleak December dawn in 1988, as Ranga was in the midst of a hunger strike to demand – ironically – police protection against threats to his life, he was killed by attackers wielding axes, machetes and bombs. The obvious suspect was Nehru, then a TDP MLA. The city instantly burst into rioting and clashes between the two factions, and although police were ordered to shoot on sight, they failed to quell the rioters until the army was flown in. The riots left 42 people dead, and resulted in hundreds of crores of damage – in 1992 terms – to hotels, movie theaters and businesses, most of them owned by Kammas.

“I was at the local chai stall that day, and I saw a couple of youth creating a ruckus,” recalls Prasad, the film distributor. “I remember commenting to someone about why these kids were making a scene, when suddenly someone came and punctured my scooter tires! That’s when someone told me that Ranga had been killed, and that I was lucky that I only lost my tires.”

The old factions have long stopped ruling the city, though lingering resentments inconsequentially surface from time to time. Nehru and Ranga’s protégés sporadically feud on Telugu news channels, threatening death and vowing revenge over perceived slights – an irresistibly post-modern twist of the past. And Ranga’s (surprisingly) lean image is splashed across the city, like on a flexiboard outside a youth politics club, where his face is superimposed over that of a lion. Flanking Ranga are life-sized cutouts of Kapu actors Ram Charan and Pawan Kalyan, both mustachioed and in “action pose.”

Hoardings of slain politician Ranga Rao outside a youth group office. Photo by Suresh Ghattamaneni. 

Vijayawadans love the movies, and the city’s faded rowdyism lives on in the glorified machismo of Telugu film. The director Ram Gopal Varma, who studied in Vijayawada’s Siddhartha Engineering College in the 1980s, finds particular inspiration in the city’s criminal history, once even calling himself a “rowdy of rowdies.” His first movie Siva, which released in 1989, portrayed a seedy, politically-linked underworld that loomed over college student politics – a plot supposedly inspired by Varma’s own college days, when he claims to have been involved in “lots of gang fights.” Varma later directed the 1993 Gaayam, in which the hero settles a score with a crooked Vijayawada MLA and his powerful mafia, and most recently, the 2013 Bezawada (an older name for Vijayawada), loosely based on the Nehru-Ranga conflict.

The memorable finale of the 2008 movie Krishnaopens to a backdrop of Vijayawada’s green hills and its famous Durga temple, where the villain – green-eyed and dressed in a spotless white suit, an obvious outsider to the city – waits with the heroine (a hostage) and his army of scowling, machete-wielding henchmen, many of whom are inexplicably hanging out of trucks (a nod, perhaps, to Vijayawada’s historic transportation industry). A tense silence descends as the hero arrives alone, on foot, and exchanges heated words with the sneering villain. The hero proclaims his invincibility as a Vijayawada local and proceeds to comically bump his fists against his puffed cheeks (don’t ask). Suddenly the bad guy’s trucks explode, flying several stories into the air in slow motion, flinging screaming henchmen and machetes all over the place. The hero bumps his cheeks again, and a horde of white Tata Sumos emerges from nowhere – biblical numbers of Sumos, an entire shipping depot of them, each one overflowing with more scowling, machete-wielding henchmen. They ride in circles for a bit and come to a screeching halt behind the hero, filling his empty half of the screen in impeccable rows. The point is the hero, the Vijayawada native, was never really alone. This is enough to scare the villain’s corrupt politician sidekick, who warns that they’ve mucked up ‘local sentiments’, and advises the villain to leave the heroine and flee. Too late. A squat, incredibly tough-looking guy, his face pockmarked and angry, steps out of the central Sumo with a triumphant look on his face.

“Rey!” he says, his voice echoing across the hills, “Rowdyism puttindhe Bezawadalo ra.” Rowydism was born in Bezawada, boy. Needless to say, the villain dies soon afterwards.

In real life, though, Vijayawadans insist that they have moved on. “People don’t really want that culture of rowdyism or student politics that existed long back, because they have seen the destruction it does,” says Bonda Umamaheshwara Rao, a TDP Assemblyman who represents the city’s central constituency. “Now they just want to study engineering and move to America.”

Satyanarayana Boddapati, a Deputy Superintendent of Police in the neighboring Guntur district, who has also served in Vijayawada, says that violent crimes and gang activity have come down dramatically in the area. Ranga and Nehru got their strength, he says, from hordes of followers willing to lay down their lives for them. “But even followers have to feed their kids, they want to educate them. They understand that dying for a leader, for a name, for someone else just isn’t worth it,” he adds with a casual shrug.

These days, Boddapati keeps busy with real estate disputes and petty crimes. “Crime has changed from gang violence to thefts and chain snatching, often by engineering students looking for ways to fund a more lavish lifestyle.” The Vijayawada media especially relishes the trope of star-crossed lovers turning to a life of crime.

Cellphone-stealing college graduates are only a recent iteration of an old motif: status. “Most people believe in Karma Siddhantam,” as Rajendra Prasad puts it, referring to the Hindu philosophy of action. “But in Vijayawada we believe in Kanapade Siddhantam” – the Philosophy of the Seen.

There is no limit to aspiration, to the insatiable desire for rising in life. Priests at the Durga temple coax devotees into emptying their pockets. An auto driver complains that college students driving rickshaws on the side are driving down his fares. But also, fresh graduates work to build a startup culture. The children of a mechanic become engineers. And every other person is working to make it to Hyderabad, or Dubai, or the United States. It’s not a coincidence that movies are so popular in Vijayawada; the thrum of the city whispers, “escape, escape, escape”.

At an individual level, these ambitions can collectively lend the city a certain brilliance. But an entire city? The sleek and sanitized plans for the new capital personify these middle-class aspirations. The foreign consultants, the repeated use of “World Class,” the sheer scale and cost of the project – it is as if the capital is designed to escape the realities of the land around it.

 “These are positive aspirations,” warned the Sivaramakrishnan Committee, the group initially tasked with identifying a new capital, “but the economic, social and political reality of Andhra Pradesh is so different from these middle/high-income countries that drawing a direct relationship from their experience and current status should be handled with serious caution.”

How escapist can a city be before it starts excluding large segments of the population? As Gogu Shyamala said, what will become of the laborers and the share-croppers in a city whose sights are so keenly set overseas?

“We are trying to put together a series of touchdown points for global capital here,” says Maringanti. “We’re looking at the connections to global industry as the only way of making money, to the exclusion of everything else. So that results in a loss of capabilities, and worse, a loss of imagination.”

The government is pushing the capital forward on the assumption that people will come – even as, like a cosmic redshift, the region’s homebred talent pulls away. “What is Vijayawada going to become the center of? Ask yourself that question,” Srinivas adds. “It doesn’t have the capacity to absorb talent.” When Hyderabad became the capital of united Andhra Pradesh, in 1956, the intelligentsia moved from Chennai and Vijayawada, for the sake of either language or city. “Now, when you bring the capital to Vijayawada, are they going to move back? I don’t think so. I don’t think there will be the same kind of move.”

How will the World Class Capital evolve into a vibrant cultural metropolis when so many people from the area are trying to leave? For now, the administration doesn’t seem to be considering that question. “They don’t want any other model,” says Siddharth Marrupedi, of StartAP. “They only want the Vijayawada model.”

But Sajaya Kakarla sees hope. “The [new capital] might still have scope for developing as an inclusive, cosmopolitan city that progressively grows,” she says. “I expect the social composition in this region to change,” as Andhra people from all walks of life migrate to the capital to pursue their own dreams. Maybe, just maybe, the new Vijayawada will become the kind of place people escape to.

We visit Karl Marx Road on our last day in Vijayawada. It’s a Sunday; the roads are abuzz with shoppers. A shiny black BMW honks and prowls through the narrow lanes off of the main road, full of caged fury and throttled by the small townishness of it all. It stops against a pair of motorcycles blocking the road; the driver honks, but the owners ignore him, and casually keep sipping their chai. The driver sits back with a look of resignation.

A bumper sticker on one of the bikes reads, “Idhi Bezawada. Ikkada Inthe.”This is Bezawada. This is how it is.

Vivekananda Nemana is a freelance journalist. He is working on a book about the lives of tribal youth in northern Andhra Pradesh. He tweets @vnemana.

Suresh Ghattamaneni is a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow, currently associated with Yugantar. He is also pursuing a Master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism at Osmania University.