Vijayawada’s Autonagar workers allege govt apathy amidst looming unemployment

There is discontent among the voters in Vijayawada’s Jawahar Autonagar with the ruling YSR Congress Party and Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. They fault the government for not bringing about development in the area.
Azeez welds the edges of an oil cooler in Vijayawada's Autonagar.
Azeez welds the edges of an oil cooler in Vijayawada's Autonagar.
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Pausing briefly as he welds the corners of an 8x4 oil cooler in Vijayawada’s Autonagar, Azeez (50) explains how lorries like those meant for the cooler he is working on, are going extinct. “There are newer lorries now, with easily attachable coolers,” he says, explaining how the work he does is slowly turning obsolete. Azeez’s remark sheds light on the situation of several workers employed in Jawahar Autonagar, an area predominantly known for housing automobile manufacturing units, spare parts dealerships, and related businesses. The area now faces a series of issues, like poor infrastructure, lack of investment, minimal efforts to ensure skill development for workers, and increase in vehicular tax. 

Inaugurated in 1966 by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, the area served as a hub for the automotive industry until recently; assembling, and distributing vehicles, automotive components, and accessories. However, according to Rajanala Venkata Ramana Rao, the president of Automobile Technicians Association (ATA), the many issues that plague it will not let Autonagar survive one more decade.

Foundation stone for Autonagar laid by former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Foundation stone for Autonagar laid by former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

An important part of Vijayawada East constituency, Jawahar Autonagar houses nearly half of the constituency’s two lakh voters. In addition to Telugu voters, including those who migrated there from other districts of Andhra Pradesh, the area has working class Muslims who shifted to Vijayawada from neighbouring states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The constituency is one of the Telugu Desam Party’s strongholds, with TDP MLA Gadde Rammohan Rao, from the Kamma community, winning the last two elections. 

There is discontent among the voters with the ruling YSR Congress Party and Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. “CM Jagan and his YSRCP have done little for the middle-class or for workers like us. There is very little skill development. When our current jobs run cold, we don’t know what to do next,” says a worker. According to him, several mechanics have already left Autonagar for small scale repair jobs in cities like Hyderabad. 

The sentiments against YSRCP and in support of TDP are, however, born out of more than a political difference. Many fault the ruling YSRCP for not bringing about development in the area.

ATA president Rajanala Venkata Ramana Rao (Babji) elaborates, “I would give it no more than 10 years. Neither have people been trained to develop their skills properly, nor is there enough business coming in.” He pins the blame on various state governments, including the current YSRCP government. “Coupled with that, the Union government’s push towards Electric Vehicles will render many blue-collar mechanics obsolete as they don’t have the wherewithal to repair such cars,” he said. 

In a more recent critique of CM Jagan, ATA and other workers pin the blame on YSRCP led government’s attempt to commercialise the land in Autonagar. They are referring to a 2022 government order to convert Autonagar, classified as an industrial area, into a commercial and residential area. 

GO 5 and the anger towards CM Jagan

The YSRCP state government under CM Jagan introduced government order (GO) number 5 in February 2022, drawing the ire of Jawahar Autonagar workers and the ATA. The Coordinated Growth Policy introduced through the GO by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation Limited (APIIC) aims to convert the area into a “sustainable revenue source for the government by enabling change of land”, that is, convert it into commercial and residential land. 

“Due to increasing urbanisation, the owners of units in Autonagar are facing a lot of difficulty in operating service units … Hence it is felt necessary to unlock the land potential of brownfield assets like autonagars,” read the GO referring to the first well-known Jawahar Autonagar in Vijayawada and smaller autonagars across other districts in Andhra Pradesh. 

Through the GO, the APIIC directed Urban Development Authorities (UDAs) to convert existing autonagars into multipurpose use zones. The UDA is to levy an impact fee of 50% of the market value of land if those employed in the autonagar wished to continue their industrial work. Once the GO is implemented, workers have to obtain permission by paying 50% of the market value of their land, to continue doing the work they have done all along. The policy also did not permit for any revision in notified Autonagars.

“The GO posed a big problem. These are small scale units and people working here have done so for very a long time. 50% of the land fee is an exorbitant amount for a lot of them. So the ATA approached the Andhra High Court and got an interim stay on the GO,” explained Babji. In its May 2022 order, the High Court directed the state “not to take any coercive steps on any land owners in the Autonagars, on the ground of change in use of land or change in line of activity of owners of these plots, pending further orders.”

The GO, coupled with dissatisfaction with the Jagan Mohan Reddy government over the lack of job opportunities has pushed people to turn to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) yet again.

“We opposed the GO when CM Jagan introduced it. If accidentally he is voted back to power, he will find a way to enforce it again and make life difficult for every worker in Autonagar. All in all, he has ruined the transport industry,” alleged TDP general secretary Nara Lokesh at his Yuva Galam padayatra amid rousing applause.

Green Tax: How lorry owners and mechanics are affected

Workers in Autonagar were also hit by a road tax that the YSRCP government introduced in 2021 under the AP Motor Vehicles Taxation (Amendment) Act. Aside from a tax hike on new vehicles, a green tax of Rs 4000 would be levied on transport vehicles that were 7-10 years old. Also, Rs 5000 and Rs 6000 respectively would be levied if the vehicle is 10-12 years and more than 12 years old.

In January 2023, the Andhra Pradesh Lorry Owners’ Association general secretary YV Eeswara Rao had written to CM Jagan requesting the green tax introduced by the YSRCP government to be scrapped. 

The high rate of the green tax levied by the Andhra government affected the business of both lorry workers and mechanics, says Eeswara. “Diesel prices have shot up post the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of the quarterly tax, Andhra is imposing a hefty green tax, affecting lorry workers. The neighbouring state of Karnataka collects only a minimal tax of about Rs 500. It is unfortunate that despite repeated pleas to consider a rollback, the government remains indifferent,” he had written.

Another member of the ATA points to a different problem. “Earlier, lorries from Hyderabad and other districts in present day Telangana would come here for repairs. But with the bifurcation of states, an increase in green tax and additional permits from the Road Transport department has dissuaded them. They now handle their repairs within Telangana. Business has dropped by at least 75%,” he explains.

‘No investment means no jobs for Autonagar workers’

The lack of investment and construction in Vijayawada is another major reason for Autonagar’s workers’ anger with the ruling YSRCP. 

In the recent past, several companies including Amara Raja Batteries Limited (ARBL), an industrial and automotive battery group, have pulled out of investing in Andhra Pradesh and chose to shift base to Telangana. While the TDP accused the state government of sidelining ARBL as it is run by TDP Guntur MP Jayadev Galla’s family, the government maintained that the notices were based on the detection of lead contamination and environmental pollution in the surroundings. 

Rajasekhar, a 40-year-old repair shop owner, throws up a separate problem to explain the lack of work. “The road diversions from Benz Circle [in Vijayawada] to Jawahar Autonagar has prevented lorries from reaching the area. Coupled with this, the state government’s lack of focus on ensuring construction companies invest and work out of Vijayawada, has reduced employment opportunities for workers in Jawahar Autonagar,” he adds. 

Urgent need of skill upgradation 

Like Azeez, several workers in Jawahar Autonagar think there is an urgent need for skill upgradation. “Vehicles are changing by the day. There is new technology at play and people invariably choose to give it to car service companies, rendering mechanics jobless. With the increased interest in Electric Vehicles (EV), the mechanic business has taken a full hit,” explained a worker in Autonagar. 

“No party including the Congress, which ruled united Andhra, has worked on skill upgradation for people in Jawahar Autonagar,” says Babji, He adds that while the IT industry receives impetus, there is no push towards the automobile or the transport industry from any state government, despite the availability of labourers.

The appreciation for TDP was echoed by several workers in Jawahar Autonagar. Three men in their early 20s who are temporarily manning an auto repair shop located near Sai Hotel Centre in Autonagar giggle when asked about the job situation in Andhra Pradesh. “There are very few jobs for us,” says Haseen, a graduate currently preparing for the AP District Selection Committee (DSC) examinations. Haseen adds that while his family was traditionally YSRCP supporters, the lack of jobs has turned them towards the TDP. 

TDP leader Nara Lokesh in his Yuva Galam padayatra assured that such a skill upgradation for workers will take place if TDP is voted back into power in the 2024 Assembly polls. However, scepticism persists. 

“Why would youngsters choose to work in Autonagar? There are neither facilities of value nor any opportunity for job growth,” alleges Babji.

Lack of facilities

Another one of Autonagar’s woes involves the poor state of the area’s infrastructure, including roads and drainage facilities. 

Former ATA president Abdul Azeez had told local media in 2013 that while each successive government releases grants worth crores for infrastructural development, the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC) ends up spending only a meagre part of it on Jawahar Autonagar.

Raising a similar complaint at the recent Yuva Galam yatra, ATA general secretary MA Khaliq also brought up the fact that Autonagar suffers from the lack of a proper drainage system and needs better drinking water facilities, towards which the ruling government has allegedly taken no action. 

While Prasad Sunkara, a resident of Jawahar Autonagar explains how TDP leader Gadde Anuradha, wife of Vijayawada East MLA Gadde Rammohan, invested around Rs 2 crores for the repair of roads, Rehman Baig, a mechanic in Autonagar says that infrastructural repair area has seen doesn’t amount to much. “Our business used to thrive even when the roads were bad. But now, the road quality is better, but business has faltered,” he says. 

Researchers highlight outdated tech, lack of feeder industries

The problems persist despite the fact that the area holds immense potential for development. In an international collaborative research titled Smart Economy for Smart Cities, University College London professor Raktim Ray, Bhopal school of Planning and Architecture professor Aparna Soni, and Delhi School of Planning and Architecture professor N Sridharan explain how Autonagar could be one of the innovative clusters in the Vijayawada-Guntur region for generating revenue. 

According to the researchers, what works against Jawahar Autonagar despite the availability of manpower and over 1500 work units, is the “lack of feeder industries” and “outdated technology” that prevent the generation and boosting of employment.

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