Amaravati protest enters day 200 as Andhra capital issue remains unresolved

Even as stakeholders continue to protest, the government has announced plans to shift the capital once the pandemic situation is under control.
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On December 17, 2019, the three-capital plan for Andhra Pradesh was first floated by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy. Protests against the proposal began the very next day in several villages of the Amaravati capital region, and have continued till now. As of July 4, the protests against decentralisation of capitals have been going on for 200 days.

Although the state government had intended to shift the executive capital to Visakhapatnam by April in spite of several hurdles, the pandemic has stalled all such plans.

However, protests by Amaravati farmers, landlords and the opposition parties demanding a single capital have continued, and the Amaravati Joint Action Committee (JAC) has organised a virtual event to mark the 200th day of protests.

The JAC in a statement called for the virtual protest to stand with the thousands of local farmers “who sacrificed their long-held ancestral lands.”

Demands for sole capital status continue

Koteswara Rao from Dondapadu, who has given four acres of his land under the previous TDP government’s land-pooling scheme (LPS), says that farmers are tired of simply receiving the annual lease each year. “This year, the lease amount has been delayed. But we could’ve earned that from our lands even earlier. We want everything that was promised to us when we gave the land, which can only happen with investment and development in the region,” he says. 

Around 28,000 farmers and landowners from 29 villages in Amaravati had given nearly 33,000 acres of land under the LPS. Under the scheme, people who owned land in the capital region could volunteer to give it up to the government, in exchange for developed plots with urban infrastructure to come up in a few years. After coming to power in 2019, the YSRCP government halted all development works in the region, and eventually announced its decision to set up three capitals in the interest of decentralised governance.

While decentralisation of administration has been recognised as a valid concern, experts have also pointed out that making Vizag the executive capital essentially means shifting the capital there. They have warned that in spite of using the labels of legislative and judicial capitals for Amaravati and Kurnool, they could be rendered irrelevant in comparison to Vizag eventually.

Although the YSRCP government has refused to change its stand over the past six months, Koteswara Rao says that the JAC’s demands have remained the same. “In all these days, neither the Chief Minister, nor the local MLAs or ministers have visited us to hold talks of any kind. So our demands remain the same, that there must be only one capital in Amaravati, and pending development works must be completed,” he says. 

Anxiety over development and investments in the Amaravati region

“It’s already been five years since we gave our land, and rates have fallen from Rs 30,000 to 40,000 per square yard to Rs 7,000. Plots have been allotted to us but without all the promised development and infrastructure, without electricity lines, roads and water connections, they are not of much use,” Koteswara Rao says. The TDP had promised to build a ‘world-class’ city like Singapore, and those who had pooled their land had expected land prices to go up massively in a few years.

Much of the pooled land was fertile farmland known to yield up to three harvests in a year, and was pooled for the capital in spite of concerns raised over the environmental impact. The TDP constructed a few buildings during its term, including a temporary Assembly, Secretariat and High Court, quarters for ministers and bureaucrats.

While many projects are in various stages of completion, much of the formerly arable land is no longer cultivable as it was prepared for urbanisation.

Not only has the YSRCP government halted construction works, but huge amounts of expected financial support for the capital projects has been withdrawn since the Jagan government came to power. This includes a 300 million USD loan from the World Bank, and a 200 million USD loan from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Koteswara Rao points out that other projects, like the BR Shetty Medicity, have also either backed out or are stuck in limbo. 

Responding to these concerns, S Rajiv Krishna, advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government, said that development in the Amaravati region will continue alongside the shifting of the capital. “We do not want to change any of the regular development that would happen. Largely speaking, the Vijayawada metropolitan area will continue to be developed, because it's a major metropolitan area. Obviously buildings related to the executive branch of the government won’t come up here but everything else will continue. We will finish constructing incomplete roads and other works, and conclude whatever has been started in a systematic, organized way, regardless of the shifting,” he said.

He also added that the government has plans to set up a special zone for food processing in the Amaravati region, which were delayed due to the pandemic, and will be announced in due course.

Capital shifting to continue despite multiple hurdles

Earlier in January, the Andhra Pradesh Assembly passed two Bills --  the AP Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, and the AP Capital Region Development Authority (Repeal) Bill, 2020 -- to create the two additional capitals. However, it was stalled in the Legislative Council, where the TDP has a majority. The Council Chairman had referred the Bills to a select committee, based on the TDP’s demands.

Following this, the Assembly, where the YSRCP enjoys a massive majority, passed a resolution urging the Centre to abolish the Council. The Centre is yet to take a decision on this matter. The Centre has previously said that the state is free to decide its own capital.

The government had however initiated the shifting of various departments and staff members to Vizag around April. These plans were foiled due to the pandemic. In the recent budget session, the Assembly passed the capital decentralisation Bills for a second time, and they were stalled in the Council yet again.

The YSRCP government, however, has made it clear that the shifting process will commence once the pandemic situation is under control.  “The original plan was to have local elections, and after completing them the shifting would begin. Obviously those plans were shifted because of the pandemic. Since health experts say that the pandemic is likely to continue till the end of August or September, we will revise the shifting plan to the end of September or early October, depending on the COVID-19 situation. It may happen in the middle of the school term. Since schools haven’t physically opened yet, we will examine all such concerns and may start slowly shifting in October,”  Rajiv Krishna said.  

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