One Year Of Amaravati Protests: Why Andhra's 'Capital Gains' Do Not Deserve To Be Trifurcated

by Vamsi Viraj - Jan 23, 2021 05:41 PM +05:30 IST
One Year Of Amaravati Protests: Why Andhra's 'Capital Gains' Do Not Deserve To Be TrifurcatedAndhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy
  • A fully functioning capital at Amaravati seems to be the optimum decision for Andhra Pradesh.

    But the current state government is adamant on dividing the capital among three cities.

On 17 December 2020, the struggle of Andhra farmers in the Amaravati region to retain it as the sole capital of the state completed a year.

Bucking the trend of massive protests against land acquisition in modern India, Amaravati farmers have been protesting the government’s decision not to develop this region.

Pending central interference and verdicts of the higher judiciary on multiple petitions, there would be a trifurcation of the state’s capital functions, gutting any development of Amaravati as the capital.

I had previously argued for Amaravati’s transformational abilities in rejuvenating the identity of Andhra Pradesh post-bifurcation.

This isn’t empty myth-making. It is grounded in the experience of forging Hyderabad as the city of fortune (Bhagyanagaramu).

As the capital of a large and diverse state - undivided AP was larger than UP in area - it evolved into the city of opportunity for everyone except the elites.

India’s seventh biggest city in the 1980s, it grew into the fifth-biggest by the early 2000s, attracting people from all over. It pushed AP to a higher growth orbit, developing the marginalised regions.

Conceived as a ‘world-class city’ to match Singapore, Amaravati hoped to reimagine the identity of the residual state. It would be a sub-national narrative that captures the imagination of local and diasporic Telugus.

It was to re-territorialise the energies and resources of people who were prolific migrants, with no capital to call their own.

The Sivaramakrishnan Committee

In 2014, the Centre appointed the Sivaramakrishnan Committee to suggest AP’s capital.

The Committee noted Vijayawada Urban Agglomeration’s suitability as a capital, rating it highly on connectivity, water availability, and infrastructure.

However, it warned of adverse effects on local dynamism, food security, and urbanisation.

Vizag was a risky choice, owing to its eco-sensitivity and natural disasters.

Decentralisation: The report suggested decentralisation, by distributing directorates, state-owned bodies, and departments based on economic geography.

Vizag was to host IT-related departments, Ongole Animal Husbandry, Anantapur Education, etc.

But this recommendation sidestepped the logistical benefits of having all state bodies in one place. No Indian state distributes administration across distant cities in this manner.

While power needs to be decentralised, centralised administration promotes efficiency, essential for a financially strapped AP.

As for regional imbalance, things have turned around in recent decades, especially in terms of industries.

Sri City was developed as an electronics hub in Chittoor, first under YSR and then Chandrababu Naidu.

Srikakulam MP Rammohan Naidu pointed out how among the 930 projects established in AP between 2016-19, “more than half of these (59 per cent) were in Rayalaseema and more than a fifth in North Andhra.

Prakasam and Nellore districts accounted for 9.9 per cent with the predominantly agrarian Krishna-Godavari region accounting for the rest (10.6 per cent). ”As per the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS II), united Andhra Pradesh had among the lowest income inequalities in India. Reasons include high female labour force participation rates, and the best quality jobs nationally.

Food security: Using a fraction of a fertile valley (with 15 lakh acres of Guntur’s net sown area) for non-agricultural purposes will have little effect on food security.

This is pertinent considering India’s procurement of rice and wheat has far outstripped its buffer stocks in recent years. Punjab and Telangana have outmatched AP in rice production. And unlike Punjab and Haryana, barely half the paddy produced in AP is procured by public agencies.

Local dynamism: Developing Amaravati would also harness the locally vibrant private sector, offsetting the high cost of a greenfield capital.

Vijayawada and Guntur are the top two densest cities in southern India, indicating high urbanisation and economic growth.

Locating a capital in either city would stress their holding capacity. As they continue to expand, a capital located between them would anchor their financial and urban outgrowth, obviating their urban sprawl towards each other.

Simultaneously, it relieves them off demographic stress.

Instead of state-led development, Amaravati could be developed mostly through private initiative, revenues from land pooling scheme, and by situating industries and universities (SRM and VIT) here.

Elite enrichment: There has been significant communalisation of state discourse around the Kamma caste disproportionately benefiting from Amaravati’s development.

Affidavits submitted in the AP High Court suggest otherwise.

Of the 34,323 acres pooled, Reddys owned 23 per cent, Kammas 18 per cent, Kapus 9 per cent, BCs 14 per cent, SC/STs 32 per cent and minorities 4 per cent.

Thus, 3 dominant castes (Reddy, Kamma, and Kapu) owned 50 per cent, reflecting land-owning patterns elsewhere in AP. It is a given that any land-owning caste will benefit when a new road is notified, or a new city planned.

In the 2019 election, YSRCP won 29 out of the 33 seats in Krishna and Guntur districts (where Amaravati is located). There was nothing about shifting capitals in the YSR Congress manifesto or election speeches.

Both the election and the current street protests are expressions of democratic will that cannot be explained away by simplistic binaries of caste-inflected dominance or profit-making.

Simply locating the capital in Vijayawada or Vizag or Kurnool would have reinforced existing power networks in these regions. Building a city from scratch, even if it benefits local land-owning castes initially, envisions a break from these entrenched identity-based networks.

Feasibility Of Three Capitals: Decentralisation Or Window-dressing?

Kurnool, the planned judicial capital, is 350 km from Amaravati and 700 km from Vizag.

Amaravati is 380 km from Vizag.

Developing a city top-down through the ripple effects of state institutions is a relic of the Nehruvian era.

Even if the High Court were shifted to Kurnool, benches are to be set up in coastal districts owing to Andhra Pradesh’s size and population, diluting the idea of a judicial capital. The shift is unlikely as establishing a HC is outside state jurisdiction. The principal seat of the High Court at Amaravati was notified by the Centre under AP Reorganization Act 2014.

To shift the HC to Kurnool, Central re-notification is necessary.

What of setting up Amaravati as the legislative capital?

Over the years, we have been witness to the rise of the executive state at the cost of the legislature. In contrast to HCs that function most of the year, legislative assemblies in our states (including AP) have met for an average for less than 10 weeks per year since 2000.

In an alternative plan, cities would reportedly be rotated for legislature sessions, further diluting the idea of a legislative capital. MLAs attend sessions for only a few weeks yearly. They tend to be based in their constituencies irrespective of where the ‘legislative’ capital is.

By choosing to locate all the executive organs - the CMO, the Secretariat, heads of administrative departments - in Vizag, the capital is being shifted rather than being decentralised.

Shifting capitals to Vizag, southern India’s fourth richest city in per capita income, for decentralisation does not conform with the narrative of developing the backward Uttarandhra.

Prominent business groups were shown the door or forced to shelve their investments in the city. Little interest is shown in saving the historic Waltair division from being erased in the process of forming the new South Coast Railway zone.

The same spirit of decentralisation is absent when it comes to Panchayat bodies, undermining them by refusing to hold local polls.

Growth Engines And Growing Debt Burden

Being an agrarian economy, the state faced a dilemma: Where are the industries to utilise labour and capital shifting from the agricultural sector?

The rise of Hyderabad as an economic powerhouse in the 1990s and 2000s solved this. In the fast-transforming India of the time, AP saw the largest decline in poverty.

Increased revenues from high growth rates effected the expansion of irrigation infrastructure and welfare programs (such as the popular Aarogyasri).

CM Jagan need look no further than his own father’s actions after wresting power from Chandrababu Naidu in 2004. Naidu’s reforms were kept intact: YSR completed projects begun by him.

If Jagan were to similarly build on the foundations of Amaravati, it could generate revenues to fund his ambitious Navaratnalu programs.

However, popular schemes introduced in 2014-2019 (Anna Canteens, free sand policy, student scholarships, etc) were shut and their funds redirected to the current regime’s new schemes.

Instead of redistributing growing wealth, only the mechanism of redistribution is being changed now, under-written by a growing debt burden.

The Covid-19 pandemic further depleted state revenues.

The government resorted to debt-fuelled spending to make up for this shortfall.

From an average of 28 per cent in 2015-19, AP’s debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 34.5 per cent in 2020-21. This is the highest among Indian states, behind only Punjab, Manipur, and Nagaland.

Within the first 6 months of 2020-21, it was among the few states to exceed its budgeted borrowings for the entire year. It far exceeded the combined borrowings of TN and Telangana between April-November 2020.

Will AP have the resources to build three functioning capitals?

Exhibiting Control, Losing The Economy

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a different context, the present government is driven by the need to appear bold, display power, and exhibit social control. The mantra of decentralisation through three capitals is presented as a bold move.

The government showcases itself as a powerful body, in the image of its strongman CM. The concerned bills are ramrod in the Assembly, large-scale farmers’ protests violently suppressed, and legitimacy is claimed for any undemocratic move by pointing to YSR Congress’ unprecedented 2019 mandate.

And it has tried to exhibit control by contesting or repealing business agreements set in motion by the previous government.

Social media posts lament that AP has regressed to the level of Bihar due to violence against the opposition, flight of investors, and police excesses. This comparison is egregious and false, not least because Bihar has developed remarkably in the last two decades.

But there was a time in the early 1990s when the per capita income and poverty levels of AP were comparable to another state - UP. AP charted a different trajectory with reforms in the economy, building a growth engine to unleash the economy, continuity in governance, and redirecting revenues to build a sustainable welfare state.

Poverty among Dalits, STs, and Muslims fell sharply, indicating inclusive development. This development model is being contested now, with focus only on welfare distribution than wealth creation.

In an Assembly discussion in January 2020 on a Bill trifurcating the capital, Chandrababu Naidu poignantly begged the CM not to do this, arguing that three capitals did not work anywhere in the world.

Economic reforms and the building of new urban projects must not always be sacrificed on the altar of politics, decentralisation, or redistribution.

The Andhra economy faced multiple shocks in 2019-20, owing to the sand ban, national slowdown, and declining tax revenue. The present Covid-19 recession has already affected the state’s revenues, employment numbers, MSMEs, and remittance economies of its backward districts.

Gutting a potential growth engine such as Amaravati will further harm the government’s ambitious welfare regime and, by extension, the ideas of redistribution and livelihood creation.

Vamsi Viraj works with Yuva Galam, a non-partisan NGO, and, a COVID-19 news aggregator. He was previously a research associate for ethnographic work in Anantapur district and constituency development work in Srikakulam.

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