For close to one month now, Prabhudas has been worried. A resident of Lingayapalem village in Andhra Pradesh, Prabhudas says that several small farmers in the region are disheartened, as the prices of their land are bound to fall steeply.
Lingayapalem is one of the 29 villages in Amaravati; a massive area spread over 33,000 acres, which was announced as the capital of bifurcated Andhra Pradesh in 2015. The previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government had acquired land and begun construction, but when the YSRCP took over the state's reins in May last year, things changed.
Alleging insider trading by the TDP, the YSRCP halted all construction, and is now actively considering a proposal to decentralise the state's capital. As per the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government’s plan, three different capitals with separate functions will be established, with Visakhapatnam being the executive capital, Kurnool the judicial capital, and Amaravati being scaled down to the legislative capital. With this step, the prices of land, that had shot up after the TDP's announcement, could now fall just as quickly.
"If there were indeed malpractices in land acquisition, they should identify those who were involved and punish them exclusively. With this decision, even small farmers and Dalit farmers will be punished for no fault of theirs," says Prabhudas.
Protests against YSRCP’s decentralisation of power plan
The YSRCP government has, however, stuck to its argument of the immense financial burden of continuing to develop Amaravati, apart from continuing to reiterate the allegations of insider trading by the previous TDP government.
The various committees appointed by the government have also supported the idea of three capitals, in the interest of decentralised and even development across the state.
The main public opposition to the proposal of three capitals has been from the farmers and landowners who had given up their land under the land pooling scheme. So far, the YSRCP government has failed to give a convincing response to the protestors to alleviate their anxieties.
Protesters have been complaining that YSRCP MLAs from their constituencies who had previously given verbal assurances on the matter have now fallen silent. Condemning the absence of a direct response from the CM, some of the protesters have demanded that Jagan must convene a press conference or engage in a dialogue with farmer representatives.
Protests against the government have broken out in the region ever since the proposal was announced by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy on December 17. For the last one month or so, a thick security blanket has been thrown around Amaravati. Police personnel can be seen everywhere, especially on the stretches between Tadepalli and Undavalli on one side and Mangalagiri and Thullur on the other.
The police have been cracking down on protests citing orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (banning assembly of more than four people) and Section 30 of the Indian Police Act. Last Friday and Saturday, police detained scores of protesters from Thullur and Mandadam villages for gathering on the streets.
On Saturday, 26-year-old Sirisha suffered an injury to her arm when she was allegedly shoved and dragged by the police as she tried to stop them from detaining her brother-in-law. According to Mandadam villagers, another young woman called Srilakshmi suffered an injury to her abdomen after she was allegedly kicked in the stomach by a male constable after she raised objection to her father being detained. “Back when Amaravati was first proposed, the elders in our family were reluctant to give up the land. The younger generation had convinced them that it would lead to prosperity, only then they agreed to give up their lands for Chandrababu Naidu,” says Sirisha’s sister-in-law Gayatri.
Lakshmi, who was forcefully detained by the police in Thullur on Thursday, says that the police unfairly ‘targeted’ protesters on the basis of their caste. “Some of us had decided to do a ‘padayatra’ (a long journey on foot) to take our offerings to the Vijayawada Kanaka Durga temple. The police hurt our Hindu sentiment by stopping us from our pilgrimage. They asked us, “Aren’t you Kamma? Don’t you know you are not allowed to protest on the street?” Lakshmi alleges.
With a large number of landowners in the region belonging to the Kamma community, some of them have alleged that the YSRCP government has decided to dilute Amaravati’s capital status owing to its dislike for the Kamma community. Chandrababu Naidu has also refuted accusations that the land pooling scheme had only benefited others from the Kamma caste, the community that the TDP leader belongs to.
Arable land rendered unfit?
At the centre of the entire conflict lies the land itself.
The 29 villages comprising the capital region of Amaravati are situated along the Krishna river, between Guntur and Vijayawada. The villages were part of a fertile agricultural region known to yield upto three harvests in a year. The Central government-appointed Sivaramakrishnan expert committee had in 2014 recommended against the region for various reasons, including objections to diverting arable lands for a concrete capital. Ignoring the committee’s recommendation, the former TDP government went ahead with Naidu’s proposal to set up a sprawling greenfield capital in the same region.
The land pooling for the proposed capital was conducted under a separate law called the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) Act. Under the state’s Land Pooling Scheme (LPS), those owning land in the capital region could volunteer to give it up to the state government, in exchange for a developed plot to be returned in the future.
Meanwhile, the government promised to pay an annual lease on the land for 10 years. With the TDP’s promises of a world-class capital like Singapore, those who pooled their land were expecting the real estate prices to skyrocket within these 10 years.
In its five-year term, the TDP managed to construct a few buildings, including a temporary Assembly, Secretariat and High Court, quarters for ministers and bureaucrats now lying in various stages of completion, and the 200-feet wide ‘seed access road’. Many of its promises remained incomplete until the YSRCP government came to power in May and stalled or cancelled works in the region, slowly leading up to the present situation.
According to several observers, returning the land would be an onerous task for the government.
P Lakshmi Narasimham, Commissioner of the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA), which pooled and acquired the land in the first place, says that farmers are unlikely to take back the land, as most of it is no longer cultivable.
“The land has completely changed, it has been transformed into urban land. Roads have been built, canals have been dug and other preparations have been made for constructions. They may have to struggle for more than three years to make the land cultivable again, if it is even possible,” he says.
Moreover, identifying one’s land would be impossible, as all markings and survey stones have been removed, he adds.
Senior politician and ex-TDP leader Vadde Sobhanadreeswara Rao also says that a large extent of arable land has been rendered unfit for cultivation due to the various works carried out by the government to make the land fit for urbanisation.
“The farmers had surrendered their land hoping for a complete transformation in the region and in their lives. Nearly 70% of the 26,000 farmers who pooled their land are small and marginal farmers owning less than 2 acres of land. If the government goes ahead with its plan, the land values are bound to fall steeply, and these farmers, especially the less prosperous ones, will be at a great loss,” says Sobhanadreeswara Rao.
What happens to the region?
Even as far as the future of the Amaravati region is concerned, mixed signals have been sent out by various ministers, further adding to the uncertainty.
In December, Panchayat Raj and Rural Development Minister Peddireddy Ramachandra Reddy talked about returning excess pooled land to farmers on more than one occasion. He told reporters that 33,000 acres was an excessive amount of land for a capital, while Hyderabad housed the Assembly and Secretariat buildings within 200 acres of land.
On the other hand, Municipal Administration and Urban Development Minister Botcha Satyanarayana recently told media persons that Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy had a ‘clear plan’ on developing Amaravati. He assured farmers that the promises made by the previous government would be fulfilled, and developed plots will be returned.
According to the YSRCP government’s plan, Amaravati will continue to be just the legislative capital, but not the sprawling metropolis promised by Chandrababu Naidu. The Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) report that came out on January 3 on the issue has ruled out the development of Amaravati as a world-class greenfield city, and has instead suggested its development as an education hub, food and fisheries hub and hi-tech organic agriculture hub. If that is indeed the government’s plan, then the land prices are unlikely to reach anywhere near to those earlier expected by the farmers.
The High-Powered Committee, which has been tasked with making the final decision on the matter, has been criticised for the lack of representation from the opposition and from affected farmer groups in Amaravati. The committee includes Finance Minister Buggana Rajendranath, Urban Development Minister Botcha Satyanarayana, Education Minister Adimulapu Suresh, Minister for Industries Mekapati Goutham Reddy, Principal Advisor to the Chief Minister Ajeya Kallam, DGP Gautam Sawang among others.
The committee held its final meeting on Monday, where it asked farmers to write to them with their concerns by January 17. A Special Assembly Session is likely by the end of January to finalise the decision. Meanwhile, the protests are only likely to intensify further, as more than 30,000 acres of land hang in the balance.