Durgapathy Rao stood over a stretch of newly built road in Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh and reminisced about his childhood when there were only paddy fields in the area. “This land sustained us for generations,” the 29-year-old farmer said.

His family had given the state government about four acres of land in 2015 under a land pooling scheme to build a new capital for Andhra Pradesh.

When the unified state was bifurcated in 2014, Andhra Pradesh lost the its capital of Hyderabad, the region’s economic powerhouse, to the newly formed Telangana state. The Telugu Desam Party government under Chandrababu Naidu then announced that a new capital for Andhra Pradesh would be built at Amaravati.

For many farmers here, this was destiny being fulfilled.

“Amaravati was the glorious capital of the Satavahanas,” Rao explained, showing an article he read on a Telugu website about the 2nd century BCE empire that flourished on the banks of the mighty Krishna river for almost 400 years.

“Have you seen the Amaravati stupa?’ he asked. “It is beautiful.” Believed to have been built in the 3rd Century BCE, the monument tells stories from the life of the Buddha. Reliefs of this stupa are now displayed in museums across India.

Historical pride, coupled with the dream of living in a developed city, meant some farmers willingly gave away their multi-crop land in one of the most fertile regions of India. Others were forced to do so, after their legal challenge to the land pooling scheme failed in the courts.

Six years later, the dream has soured. On December 17, the newly elected Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress government announced that Andhra Pradesh would have three capitals instead of one. This shrinks the size of the planned city at Amaravati.

With over 30,000 acres of land in 29 villages already pooled for the city, the announcement has led to panic among the residents. All 29 villages in the region have been agitating for nearly 50 days in the face of a brutal police crackdown. Read a ground report on the police crackdown here.

Even the farmers who reluctantly parted with their land are appalled at the government’s change of plan. They have already lost farmland, they say, and now they have no guarantee of an urban future either.

What land pooling offered

The new capital of Amaravati planned by the TDP government was to be built over 33,000 acre of land. To encourage farmers to give up their land voluntarily for the project, the government launched a land pooling scheme in December 2014.

While it was publicised as a farmer-friendly scheme, many believed it was merely the state government’s way of circumventing the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

Under this law, the government can acquire land for a project only after securing the consent of 70% of the families affected by it. This safeguard was introduced to prevent the forcible takeover of farmland against the wishes of the owners. The law also binds the government into not just paying monetary compensation to all landowners but even rehabilitating landless families affected by the project.

Farmers showing the land pooling agreement with the state government. Credit: Sruthisgar Yamunan

Land pooling, on the other hand, involves agreements with individual landowners rather than collective acquisition, thereby removing the need for public consultation. Under this scheme, the government develops agricultural land into urban real estate, raising its value, and restores a portion of the land to the original owner.

The Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority Act was notified in early 2015, setting the terms of the compensation. For every acre or 4,840 square yards of wet farming land on the banks of Krishna river, a residential plot of about 1,000 square yards and commercial plot of 450 square yards would be given. In the case of dry agricultural land, the size of the commercial plot would be smaller at 250 square yards.

In addition, the government agreed to pay an annual rent of Rs 50,000 per acre of wet farmland and Rs 30,000 per acre of dry land. This rent, with a 10% increase annually, was set to continue for 10 years from the date of entering the pooling scheme. To access these benefits, the farmer has to show ownership documents in the form of a patta.

Meanwhile, landless families who were displaced from the land were paid Rs 2,500 a month as compensation for ten years.

The land pooling scheme was accepted by some farmers on one condition: that the government would build all civic amenities like roads and drainage system. The understanding was that once the capital was built, businesses would flock to the area, and the plots given to the farmers would become high-value real estate.

Challenges dismissed

But not all farmers supported the project.

In the two villages of Penumaka and Undavalli, many farmers refused to pool their land. These villagers had argued that the land pooling scheme did not pay fair compensation, which was fixed arbitrarily without the state government explaining the rationale. They felt that the government should have provided them with land that was as fertile as the one they held.

The government decided to use the land acquisition law to take over their land, the farmers obtained a stay from the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Rachna Reddy, the lawyer who represented the farmers, said the stay in some of these cases was still in force. But this did not affect the overall project as these were small parcels of land.

A bigger challenge came in the form of a petition in the National Green Tribunal challenging the project’s environmental clearance. The petitioners, including former bureaucrat EAS Sarma, said the project would damage the sensitive ecology of the Krishna basin. The area was a flood zone, they claimed, and building concrete structures would affect the course of the river.

The NGT, however, ruled in favour of the state government in 2017. The petitioners moved the Supreme Court, which dismissed the appeals in January 2019.

By May 2019, however, the TDP government was voted out. A new government took over.

The three capital plan

Once in power, chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy decided that the state required three capitals, arguing that this will lead to development across regions. While Amaravati will retain the state assembly and will become the legislative capital, Visakhapatnam will be the seat of power from where the government will function. Kurnool, on the other hand, will host the state’s judiciary.

The TDP took to the streets against this move, with Naidu arguing that his government had spent Rs 10,000 crore on the Amaravati project between 2014 and 2019.

The decision to create two additional capitals was justified by citing the reports of two committees. The first was an “expert panel” headed by former bureaucrat GN Rao that affirmed the three-capital formula on December 21.

The second report came from the private management firm, the Boston Consulting Group, which said that the greenfield capital proposed in Amaravati was not feasible and that some functions of the state should be shifted out.

Reddy himself has offered several reasons. At an event on Wednesday, the chief minister said the cost of raising a new capital at Amaravati would be prohibitive: around Rs 1.3 lakh crore. In contrast, Visakhapatnam had existing infrastructure and the Rs 6,000 crore that the state government had for the capital project would be better spent there. “Out of this 1 lakh crore, even if 10% is put into Visakhapatnnam, at least in ten years, we would be competing with Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai,” he claimed.

In the meantime, a cabinet sub-committee headed by finance minister Buggana Rajendranath Reddy alleged in its report in December that TDP leaders had indulged in insider trading at Amaravati. They allegedly bought “assigned lands” from the poor with prior knowledge of where the capital was to come up.

Construction activity at the Amaravati Capital Region has come to a grinding halt. Credit: Sruthisgar Yamunan

Alleged corruption

Assigned lands are those allotted by the government to poor landless families, especially from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. Transfer of such land is prohibited under the Andhra Pradesh Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act.

Assigned lands are different from patta lands in the sense that the government continues to be the real owner, a technicality that allows for the bar on transferring them.

The cabinet sub-committee report alleged that the government denotified such assigned lands after TDP leaders and their associates illegally purchased about 445 acres. This was done by creating a fear of land acquisition without compensation among the landowners, who panicked and sold their real estate at throwaway prices, the report claimed.

When the land pooling was eventually announced, the assigned lands, which were now with people other than the original beneficiaries, were brought into the scheme’s ambit, it said.

Media reports allege that the TDP leaders who benefited from this scam include Chandrababu Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh. He has been linked to a man named Kholli Shivaram, who allegedly bought about 47 acres of assigned land. Naidu has vehemently denied these charges and has said he will fight them in courts.

In Vellagapudi, one of the villages that participated in the land pooling scheme, farmers said the allegations and counter-allegations between TDP and YSR Congress have turned a matter of life and death for them into a battle of egos.

“We are equally angry against both parties,” said Loka Naik, a member of a Scheduled Tribe community.

Naik said it was true that brokers had purchased land in the area at low prices before the construction began in 2015, but the YSR Congress government was punishing farmers for the corruption of the politicians. “What mistake did we do in all this except losing our lands?” he asked.

The promise of urbanisation

One of the 29 villages where farmers have been protesting for nearly 50 days now is Tulluru. Subramanya, a resident of the village, explained why farmers had parted with their land: “Instead of us moving to the city, the city was coming to us,” he said.

This urbanisation meant much more than just money. Farmers, especially from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families, believed that the capital would bring better education for their children. “My children go to the Zilla Parishad school in the village,” said Jagan Mohan. “We were hoping that in some years our daughters can go to schools like those in the city.”

For others, it was just the promise of urban life, free of the struggle on extracting a good harvest.

The news of the YSR government redrawing the capital city plan came as a shock to the farmers. They tried to seek clarity on how this would affect them, but no one from the ruling party was willing to explain, they said. Instead, when women of Tulluru marched to a temple to protest on January 10, they faced a brutal police lathi-charge.

At the heart of the unrest are concerns for the future.

Protesters in Amaravati on January 10 agitating against the Andhra Pradesh Government's three capital-proposal. Credit: IANS)

The TDP government had promised to give landowners developed plots of land in return for the agricultural land pooled. But the urban plots would not overlap with their erstwhile farms since the pooled land would be randomly divided and allotted as access to irrigation networks was no longer important, the farmers claimed.

Now, with the footprint of the capital city shrinking, farmers fear the value of the urban plots would drop. “We gave up fertile land and we could end up with a useless plot,” said A Kiran of Krishnayapalem village.

With half the construction work completed, there was no way they could farm on their land again, even if it was returned. “How do you sow paddy on a place with three inches of concrete underneath?” one farmer asked.

It is not just the landed farmers who feel let down. Landless workers initially opposed the capital project. When Scroll.in visited some of these villages in August 2015, the tenant farmers and landless labourers had questioned the process of identifying the beneficiaries for the compensation. Using technicalities, the government had excluded many whose livelihood depended on the capital region, they alleged.

They feared that with agriculture coming to an end in the area, they would be left without an income once the compensation pension ends. But the government promised more jobs would come their way in the future capital city. Now with the government planning on three capitals and taking the executive wing away from Amaravati, they don’t know what to expect.

“The farmers with land succumbed. Now we are all suffering,” said Seshagiri, a farm labourer who gets Rs 2,500 as compensation from the government. Ever since the construction work began in 2015, there has hardly been any farm work. “Given the prices of commodities, how can a family survive with Rs 2,500 a month?” he asked.

These fears were heightened over the last week when the Andhra Pradesh government canceled a commercial development deal it had entered into with a consortium of companies from Singapore. The partnership was inked in 2017 for the development of Amaravati Capital City Start-Up Area Project, under which office buildings were to be built and offered to companies.

Caste divisions

What has furthered angered the residents of the Amaravati Capital Region is caste politics on Amaravati.

In Mandadam village, women held placards that asked the government not to focus on caste but on development. The women said that a perception is being created that those who benefited from the capital project were mostly from the Kamma Naidu caste, to which former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu belongs. In reality, they said farmers from all communities had given up land and dared the state government to put out a community-wise list of the landowners.

“The smallest farmer with just half an acre also came forward trusting the government,” said a woman protester.

Though the YSR Congress does not blame the community directly, the allegations thrown against Chandrababu Naidu’s family and those close to him are seen as an euphemism for the caste itself. Apart from illegal land purchases, accusations have also been made on favouritism in sub-contracts of the companies engaged to build the capital.

Villagers demonstrate against the plan to build three capitals for Andhra Pradesh. Credit: IANS

B Rajendraprasad, a lawyer representing the farmers in the High Court against the decision to move the capital, said the YSR Congress government has several questions to answer. The foremost was how it could guarantee that the same corruption it accused the TDP of committing will not happen in Kurnool and Visakhapatnam. “Will the government ban brokers and politicians from buying land?” he asked.

In all, the lawyer said about 30 petitions have been filed against the relocation. On January 23, the Andhra Pradesh High Court in an interim order asked the state government not to shift offices out of Amaravati.

The lawyer claimed it was not just the construction that makes returning the land to the farmers impossible. “The state has also mortgaged some of this land for loans,” he claimed.

Nanda Kishore, a farmer in Krishnayapalem, is still hopeful of change in the government’s stand on Amaravati. Farmers’ unions across the state are trying to expand a joint action committee formed recently to oppose the three-capital formula. “If farmers unite across regions, we believe we can convince the government.”