Seven years later, Andhra Pradesh’s quest for a capital continues

The idea of three capitals, envisioned by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, is still hanging in thin air, with the plan caught up in a legal wrangle
On Monday, the Andhra Pradesh state assembly unanimously passed a bill repealing the two laws enacted in June 2020 on the three capitals (ANI ) PREMIUM
On Monday, the Andhra Pradesh state assembly unanimously passed a bill repealing the two laws enacted in June 2020 on the three capitals (ANI )
Updated on Nov 25, 2021 02:48 PM IST
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Seven years after it split up into two states, with the formation of Telangana, confusion and uncertainty over the capital city of residuary Andhra Pradesh continues to persist.

Amaravati, the “world-class capital city” as envisioned by Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president and former chief minister (CM) N Chandrababu Naidu on the banks of River Krishna, has turned into a virtual ghost city. And the idea of three capitals, envisioned by his successor, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, is still hanging in thin air, with the plan caught up in a legal wrangle.

On Monday, the Andhra Pradesh state assembly unanimously passed a bill repealing the two laws enacted in June 2020 on the three capitals. Though Reddy vowed to bring back a more comprehensive and fool-proof legislation that would answer all the doubts and overcome legal hurdles, it hasn’t done much to allay the uncertainty.

Finding a new capital, Naidu style

The exercise over identifying the capital city for the residuary Andhra Pradesh began a few months before the bifurcation of the combined state. The Union government, then led by the United Progressive Alliance, constituted a five-member committee under the chairmanship of former Home Secretary K Sivaramakrishnan to suggest the location for a capital city of Andhra Pradesh. The committee travelled to various parts of the state and submitted its report to then Union home minister Rajnath Singh — the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had taken over by then — on August 27, 2014.

Though the committee did not recommend any particular place for the capital, it opposed the concept of building a Super City or Smart City on the lines of Hyderabad, and also said a capital between Vijayawada and Guntur would create economic and environmental problems. It suggested a decentralised model for the capital city through three zones, instead of concentrating all offices in one place. It, however, recommended that assembly, secretariat and the CM’s office should be set up in the state capital city.

However, the newly-formed TDP government, led by N Chandrababu Naidu, simultaneously constituted a separate advisory committee headed by the minister for municipal administration, P Narayana, which also toured different parts of the state. It finally came up with the suggestion that the capital should be centrally located, equidistant from all regions of the state.

That was how the Naidu government zeroed in on the fertile agriculture zone between Vijayawada and Guntur as the capital city and named it Amaravati, an ancient city of the Sathavahana dynasty on the banks of Krishna river, which later transformed into a famed Buddhist centre, located a few kilometres from the proposed capital city.

Jagan Reddy, too, extended his support to the establishment of the capital city at Amaravati. But he later alleged that Naidu deliberately chose the place to benefit his own community, members of which were — Reddy claimed — privy to information about the capital and had purchased large tracts of land.

In December 2014, the Naidu government announced the creation of a world-class greenfield capital city over a 7,000 sq km area in Amaravati, and established Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) through legislation in the state assembly to develop the capital city.

APCRDA began acquiring 33,000 acres of fertile land from the farmers of 29 villages under land pooling by conducting gram sabhas to secure their consent. It entered into an agreement with farmers promising them to allot residential and commercial plots in the developed capital region whose value would match their original land value. Besides, it also agreed to pay a certain amount of annuity to the farmers every year, besides subsistence allowance to the landless agriculture labourers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the new capital Amaravati on October 22, 2015. Soon, the Naidu government moved its seat of power from Hyderabad to Amaravati and built an interim government complex, a temporary High Court building, a legislature complex, and even bungalows and apartments for lawmakers, judges, and officers in the next three years.

While the Central government gave 2,500 crore for building the capital, the Naidu government obtained loans from banks. Even the World Bank had finalised a US $300 million loan for the Amaravati capital city. While the master plan for the capital was done by a Singapore government-run consultancy, the designs for the capital buildings were to be done by Foster and Partners of London.

The quest for three capitals, Reddy style

But even before Naidu’s plans could get implemented, Jagan Mohan Reddy defeated him in assembly polls in May 2019. Within hours of taking charge as the new chief minister, Reddy hinted at dropping Amaravati as the state capital. He ordered that all ongoing work in the capital city be stalled forthwith, and all payments made to the contractors be stopped.

For the next six months, there was practically no activity in the Amaravati capital region and contractors abandoned the place due to lack of payments from the government and workers being left with no work.

On December 17, 2019, the CM suddenly came up with the idea of three capital cities – executive capital at Visakhapatnam, judicial capital at Kurnool and legislative capital at Amaravati. He made an announcement in the assembly to that effect, triggering massive protests from farmers of Amaravati, who gave away their land for the capital.

In fact, the government had begun the groundwork on the three capital silently much earlier. He appointed an expert committee headed by retired IAS officer G N Rao and engaged an international consultancy – Boston Consultancy Group to work on alternative capital models. And both the committees submitted their reports within a week, backing the three capitals idea.

Reddy argued that the Sivaramakrishnan committee recommended decentralised administration, as focusing the entire development on one single mega capital would do injustice to other regions of the state. But the political subtext was obvious — he did not want to continue anything that his arch-rival Naidu had planned.

In January, the government introduced the two separate bills – the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, seeking to establish three capital cities, and the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (Repeal) Bill, 2020, aimed at doing away with the authority created to develop Amaravati as the capital.

Both the bills were passed by the state legislative assembly on January 20, 2020, but were stalled by the majority of TDP members in the legislative council the following day. This prompted Reddy to move a resolution seeking abolition of the legislative council. Even as the farmers of Amaravati launched a massive agitation against the three capitals’ plan, the government went ahead with his proposal, and, in June 2020, reintroduced the two bills in the state assembly and got them passed again.

Though the council stalled the bills again and recommended them to a select committee, the officials of the state legislature stalled them on procedural grounds. Finally, on July 31, Governor Biswa Bhushan Harichandan gave his consent for the bills, which then became Acts.

From the executive to the judiciary

The farmers of Amaravati formed a joint action committee and moved the high court challenging the two Acts. More than 100 petitions were filed before the high court, most of them backed by the TDP.

A division bench of the high court headed by former chief justice JK Maheshwari took up the hearing in August 2020 and ordered that the status quo be maintained on the capitals, thereby stalling the three capitals plan.

The bench had a prolonged hearing of arguments from the counsels of the farmers as well as the government. But even as the hearing was on, Justice Maheshwari was transferred, apparently after a letter written by Reddy to then CJI SA Bobde, making certain allegations against some high court judges including Maheshwari.

Later, the issue came up before another bench, headed by the new chief justice Aroop Kumar Goswami, but it could not take up the hearing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The hearing was postponed twice and was finally posted on November 15, 2021. By then, Justice Goswami was transferred and the fresh bench headed by new Chief Justice, Prashant Kumar Mishra took up the hearing.

But even as the hearing was going on, the Jagan government suddenly announced the withdrawal of the two legislations on the three capitals and abolition of the APCRDA on Monday. A bill repealing the earlier two legislations was passed by the assembly.

The rationale of the repeal

The chief minister did not explain the reasons for repealing the bills. He only said his government would bring a “better” and more “comprehensive” bill that would answer all the doubts of some sections of people over the three capitals and clears all legal queries. He sought to blame the TDP for this uncertainty over the capitals, claiming it was spreading apprehensions among a section of people and creating legal hurdles in the process. “The Act was being withdrawn in the larger public interest,” he said.

A CMO official familiar with the development said legal experts had told Reddy that the legislations on the three capitals might be dismissed by the high court as there were a few loopholes. “The agreement between APCRDA and the farmers on land pooling is fool-proof and it cannot be cancelled unilaterally by the government,” he said.

Second, the high court was established in Amaravati with a Presidential order after taking consent from the Supreme Court. “The Reddy government cannot shift the judicial capital to Kurnool without the Supreme Court’s approval,” he said.

There is uncertainty about what the government will do now. The chief minister made it clear that there is no question of going back on the three capitals plan. He only said he would bring about a more comprehensive bill on the same in future.

However, it is not certain when he is going to do that. A senior YSR Congress party functionary said that the government will appoint another committee comprising legal experts to work out the new legislation that would address the legal issues.

“Maybe, he will retain the judicial and legislative capital at Amaravati with a bench at Kurnool and shift the executive capital to Visakhapatnam. He may also establish regional development boards for all three regions. But it is too early to talk about what is in the CM’s mind,” he said. And with that, seven years later, Andhra Pradesh’s quest for a new capital continues.

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    Srinivasa Rao is Senior Assistant Editor based out of Hyderabad covering developments in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana . He has over three decades of reporting experience.

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Monday, December 06, 2021