Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a particular fondness for what are supposed to be smart cities. He wants many dozens of them across the country. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party is no different. He wants to build Amaravati, a "greenfield" capital city where four million people would eventually reside. He wants the new city to be not just bigger but "better" than Singapore.

The two men together with many very, very important persons are scheduled to meet on October 22 for the foundation stone laying ceremony for Amaravati. The new capital city will have a spectacular 32-kilometre long riverfront along the verdant banks of the Krishna between Guntur and Vijayawada. Two international airports will flank the city which is supposed to become a centre of technology and finance. Naidu has roped in companies from Singapore  to prepare the master plan for the new capital and hopes to attract investments from Japan to develop it as an important destination for Buddhist tourists.

Land and environment issues

But this is only one part of the story. The going is unlikely to be smooth. Sections of farmers and civil society activists are most unhappy about the manner in which land has been acquired. Further, they have moved courts of law claiming that the state government is violating environmental norms. It has also been alleged that members of the legislative assembly belonging to the TDP have become realtors and brokers who have forced farmers to sell their fertile land to earn smart profits.

In a letter sent on October 16 to Ashok Lavasa, secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, EAS Sarma, former Secretary, Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, government of India, who is now an activist, claimed that the Andhra Pradesh government is violating an interim order issued on October 10 by the National Green Tribunal restraining it from going ahead with the new city project until it obtains statutory environmental clearances. He has contended that rules have not been followed while acquiring fertile agricultural land and wetlands – nearly 40% of the total area of 33,000 acres – where some 100 varieties of grains, vegetables and fruits are cultivated.

Sarma wrote:
"Apparently, the state government is not only in a tearing hurry to secure a make-believe environment clearance for the capital city project but also in an equally tearing hurry to secure environment and other clearances for real estate projects promoted by the ruling political party. This is a highly egregious situation which should compel MoEF to think twice before plunging headlong into granting environment clearance for the capital city project and thereby entangling itself into a rapidly escalating real estate scam."

In his letter, the retired bureaucrat has cited specific instances of real estate companies (such as Jayabheri Properties) promoted by a TDP member of Parliament that are among the big beneficiaries of the new capital city project. He says he has documentary evidence to prove the connection.

Another retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, MG Devasahayam, who was associated with the planning and development of Chandigarh, has pointed out that the modalities of land acquisition have been along predictable lines: the state government first takes over land, mortgages it, raises funds from banks and hands it over to private real estate firms to avoid paying the true market value of the land to the owners.

Committee ignored

Activists are particularly peeved that the Naidu government has ignored the recommendations of an expert committee that was headed by the late KC Sivaramakrishnan, former Secretary, Urban Development, which described the idea of setting up a single city as an outdated concept. The committee instead suggested that several new urban centres come up, including industrial and technology hubs. Barely a week before this committee submitted its report, on August 15, 2014, Naidu unilaterally announced that a single city would come up making a mockery of the committee's suggestions.

The Sivaramakrishnan committee had been set up by the Union Home Ministry under the provisions of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014. The committee was specifically asked to recommend how the new capital could come up by causing "the least possible dislocation to existing agriculture systems as well as ensure minimum resettlement of people and their habitations... (ensuring) preservation of local ecology and natural features including water bodies....(and) assess the scope for minimising the cost of construction and acquisition of land".

Land pooling

Particularly controversial has been the Naidu government's "voluntary" land pooling exercise which was supposed to be "unique" in India. The exercise entails landowners handing over ownership rights to a government agency that develops the civic infrastructure and which thereafter returns a portion of the land to the owner who gains since, by then, the land has become considerably more valuable.

The government's critics, however, claim the land pooling exercise through which around two-thirds of the land has been acquired from over 20,000 people, has been far from voluntary but actually "coercive". They allege that a "reign of terror" was unleashed on all those who refused to "voluntarily" give up their land. By the time inquiries are conducted and illegalities established, a few influential politicians and their friends would have earned big bucks, they claim.

Regional disparities

Sarma alleges that given the fact that the state government is steeped in debt (the fiscal deficit of Andhra Pradesh is in excess of Rs 18,000 crore), money that will be used for the capital city project will be diverted from the development budgets meant for backward areas such as the Rayalaseema region and the northern part of the state. This will widen regional disparities and would also result in the Naidu government cutting back on its welfare schemes for education and health-care, he claims, adding that the proposed barrage that would be built to provide water from the Krishna for the residents of the new city would deplete water available for irrigation in agriculturally fertile areas. In addition, large tracts of land (around 10,000 acres) are being raised by incurring substantial expenses (Rs 1,500 crore) in a manner that is ecologically unfriendly.

It's a familiar story. Landless labourers who work on other's land to earn their livelihood have had to bear the brunt of the state government's strategy of acquiring their land. And predictably, the biggest beneficiaries have been absentee landlords from Hyderabad, Guntur and Vijaywada who have become rich overnight. Many of such individuals belong to the Kamma community to which the chief minister belongs.

But these concerns do not seem to bother either Naidu or Modi who want Amaravati to rival Singapore as the "smartest" city of them all. For them, this is not a utopian dream.