How Chandrababu Naidu’s Singapore vision for Amaravati has got him in a legal tangle

Ahead of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections, TNM looks at some key evidence submitted by CID against Chandrababu Naidu. One of these is how he skipped protocols to enlist the help of Singapore companies to develop Amaravati.
Chandrababu Naidu’s Singapore vision for Amaravati
Chandrababu Naidu’s Singapore vision for Amaravati
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At the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) 9th conference in 2014, divided Andhra Pradesh’s first Chief Minister, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, mentioned Singapore six times in less than 15 seconds in his 35-minute-long address.

“(Amaravati) is one of the most important capitals we can construct. Constructing a new brand on virgin land is an opportunity for us. Now there is good competition also. But after I took the oath, I first visited Singapore. The reason being, I know the efficiency of Singapore, integrity of Singapore, I am a friend to Singapore from the beginning, I love Singapore, and I want to have good business with Singapore. Only then, will my state develop,” he said as he “requested cooperation from Singapore investors to build a new capital.”   

Throughout his speech, the then Chief Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, Naidu, waxed poetic about the glory of Singapore. He was always open about his adoration for Singapore and the country’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. PM Lee's rapid industrialisation of Singapore ensured that the country became a highly developed economy and part of the Four Asian Tigers. 

Ahead of the AP Assembly elections, TNM revisited Chandrababu Naidu’s Singapore vision seen in tandem with a case which has sullied his reputation: the Amaravati Inner Ring Road (IRR) scam. The case matters not just due to allegations of corruption but also because Amaravati is the primary issue of relevance to the electorate and the plank on which the TDP hopes to topple the YSRCP-led state government and Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. While supporters of the party pin their hopes on Amaravati as the capital, TDP critics time and again point to the scam.

The origins of Amaravati as capital and promise of a new ‘Singapore’

The first job the TDP-led state government tasked itself with after the bifurcation of the Telugu states in 2014 was the construction of the capital. Naidu promised to develop Amaravati, a land covering Vijayawada, Guntur, Tenali and Mangalagiri areas (VGMT) as the new capital. 

The master plan sectioned the capital into three areas: firstly, the larger Amaravati Capital region covered the Krishna and Guntur districts. Secondly, the Capital City of Amaravati (also in Guntur) would be set up. Lastly, the seed capital area, an imitation of the Information Technology and real estate hub – the financial district in Hyderabad – was envisioned by ‘Babu’, as followers of TDP fondly call him. 

Naidu spearheaded a unique and controversial initiative—land pooling. This was to counter the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. The TDP government pooled about 34,000 acres of land from farmers in 29 villages, which were earmarked as capital city area through the land pooling scheme (LPS). About 25,000 farmers voluntarily parted with their lands for the construction of the capital city. Under the scheme, farmers would get some proportion of developed land as plots under their share. The state government as the main developer was authorised to sell some portion of the land to raise capital to carry out the development work.

Former IAS officer and administrator of Chandigarh Capital Project MG Devasahayam found this alarming. “The accepted procedure is that land pooling is done for smaller stretches of land, for instance, if a slum is being redeveloped. Amaravati as the capital meant several people were rendered landless, and the fertile lands in the area owing to the Krishna river, is now just a real estate hub,” he told TNM. 

Green Amaravati
Green Amaravati

Human Rights Forum’s (HRF) state secretary Gutta Rohith echoed a similar sentiment. “Such large stretches of land have never been pooled for a project. But the TDP promise of a better future held a huge sway over the farmers. For them, the image of development is Cyberabad, the Financial district which Naidu mastered. They would prefer their future generations to work in multinational companies, an investment which Naidu promised for Amaravati. However, this entire project has become one huge tangled knot,” he said.

Despite the reservations voiced in 2014, Naidu's pitch to the investors worked. Singaporean companies flocked to Amaravati, a rich, agrarian terrain, “not wildly green, but green in an orderly and disciplined way… green in a commercial way,” as civil liberties activist K Balagopal wrote of the area. 

Naidu’s plan was straightforward. The greenery was to be replaced. “It soon became evident to me, activist Medha Patkar, former bureaucrat EAS Sarma and several others that there wasn’t going to be even a drop of agrarian character in designing the capital,” Devasahayam said. “Ecological planning of an urban city was replaced by a deluded need to transform Amaravati into a new ‘Singapore,’” said Sarma. 

The shift in the capital narrative: Inner Ring Road case

Farmers protesting for Amaravati at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar
Farmers protesting for Amaravati at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar

Despite protests from select farmers and bureaucrats like Sarma, the building of the capital went on. The situation changed for Naidu in April 2022, four years after TDP lost power to the YSRCP led by Jagan, when YSRCP MLA Alla Ramakrishna Reddy approached the AP Crime Investigation Department (CID). In his complaint, Ramakrishna Reddy alleged that Naidu, P Narayana, the Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MAUD) minister under the TDP regime, unduly altered the design of the IRR and zonal development plans in the Capital City area to benefit from land appreciation in Amaravati. 

The AP CID investigated the case and submitted its chargesheet to the Court of III Additional Sessions Judge-cum-Special Judge for SPE and ACB cases in Vijayawada against Chandrababu Naidu, Narayana and other accused on February 8, 2024. 

Select allegations are well known by now. The design for Amaravati and the IRR in the capital area was altered to benefit select companies run by forward caste Kammas, in and around the area. Heritage Foods, run by Naidu's wife Nara Bhuvaneshwari, the Narayana Educational institutes run by P Narayana as well as the Lingamaneni group, run by L Ramesh, known to be close to Chandrababu Naidu were to benefit from the alteration. It was also widely reported in September 2020 that former Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, at that point the second senior-most judge in the Supreme Court, allegedly conspired to illegally purchase land in Amaravati. 

How protocol was bypassed

However, one of the main pieces of evidence unearthed by TNM, according to the affidavits filed in the court, is a letter from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on October 25, 2022, telling the CID that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) (which later became an agreement) between International Enterprise Singapore and the Infrastructure Corporation of Andhra Pradesh (INCAP) was not considered as an MoU between two governments. 

Contract signed between APCRDA and Singapore Cooperation Enterprise
Contract signed between APCRDA and Singapore Cooperation Enterprise

International Enterprise Singapore (IES) was a statutory body under the Singaporean government’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. INCAP, on the other hand, is a corporation set up by an act of the Andhra state legislature, which works on developing infrastructure in the state via the Public Private Partnership model.

“Protocol dictates that a state government should consult the Union Ministry of Urban Development, who in turn would have consulted the Ministry of External Affairs while bringing on board a foreign company,” said Sarma. The letter dated December 5, 2014, showed that the AP government wrote to the MEA for approval at 4:30 pm, following which permission was granted at 5 pm. The rushed job, which Sarma dubbed ‘highly irregular and risk prone’ was made worse amid allegations that Naidu and Narayana lied to the Andhra cabinet by presenting it as an agreement between two governments instead of it being one between two independent entities. 

Further, the MEA, while granting approval, had asked the TDP-led government to seek the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs comments and views on the agreement. In a letter to the CID dated 17 August 2022, the Urban Affairs ministry told CID that they hadn’t received any such letter. In essence, the CID alleged that the TDP government skipped protocol while entering into an agreement with a foreign company. 

Similarly, the manner in which Ascendas Singbridge and Sembcorp were selected was condemned by the AP High Court. The Andhra government went for a Swiss Challenge method; wherein a government invites bids for a public project, and then publishes the bid, before inviting competing counter proposals to either match or better the initial proposal.

In September 2016,  following a petition filed by Aditya Housing and NVN Engineers challenging the government's decision to adopt the Swiss Challenge model, Justice MS Ramachandra Rao of the Hyderabad High Court stayed the process and directed the state to file its response. “The entire process suffers from illegality and procedural impropriety apart from arbitrariness, jeopardizing public interest,” Justice Ramachandra Rao noted.

Who benefitted from the Singapore companies?

The MoU was ratified by the AP government on April 22, 2014. As part of the agreement, a Singapore company, Surbana Jurong, was roped in to design the master plan for Amaravati, while the seed capital area of 1,691 acres would be designed south of the Krishna river by a consortium involving Singapore’s Ascendas-Singbridge and Sembcorp. Together, they were called the Amaravati Development Partners (ADP). 

Naidu and Narayana were accused of awarding the initial table designs for the capital’s master plan on a nomination basis. CID officials alleged that the companies were closely guided by the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) in designing the master plan to benefit Naidu, Narayana and Lingamaneni. While the awarding of contracts had to undergo a bidding process, the TDP government went against it and nominated the Singapore companies.

The argument made by the TDP government was that they had to return the reconstituted land that was procured under pooling by 2018. With the deadline in mind, the state argued that Singapore company Surbana Jurong’s expertise in urban design was ideal as they could carry out their thought to the detailed level without distortion.

In its Compliance Audit Report for March 2021, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said that while the APCRDA argued that they were empowered to sanction works and investments, this wasn’t the case. “..APCRDA Act does not absolve the authority to obviate compliance to existing rules of tendering procedure,” it noted. 

“Foreign companies and governments understandably, don’t approach a state government without a vested interest,” Sarma told TNM. The sentiment was further noted by retired professor of the Center for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) Chigurupati Ramachandraiah in an article for Down to Earth, where he noted that the Concession and Development Agreement (CADA) signed between the government and ADP allowed Ascendas Singbridge and Sembcorp to have access to contiguous land stretched free from all encumbrances. 

Naidu has also faced allegations of arbitrariness in fixing the price of land under its share. While the APCRDA had fixed the base price at Rs 4 crore to 4.1 crore per acre of land in Amaravati, land was allotted for as low as Rs 35 lakh per acre to select private entities. Naidu had earlier agreed that the reconstituted land would be given to farmers, who contributed to land pooling. However, the CID alleged that no reconstituted land could be in the seed capital area as it would be “commercially unviable for the master developer, aka, Ascendas Singbridge.”  In other words, the seed capital project was made very viable for Ascendas Singbridge.

All key offices including the governor and chief minister’s residences would be set up in the seed capital area. The CID alleged that among the three options presented by the master planner, Narayana chose the option which ensured appreciation of 55 acres of land he controlled through benami purchases.

But that’s not all. Former Reuters in charge of Asia-Pacific media business, Lee Kah Whye, noted that over 1,200 companies supported by Enterprise Singapore were enticed to invest in AP. “MOUs were also signed with Singapore firms Erect Group, CKR Group and ByBiTech to bring Singapore technologies and solutions to the Amaravati Construction City. Together, it was reported that Singapore companies have committed over USD 3 billion into projects related to the city (Amaravati).”

How was Amaravati affected? 

In May 2017, EAS Sarma wrote to the AP Chief Secretary, Principal Secretary and the Municipal Administration and Urban Development minister, arguing that aside from “enabling a foreign company to deliver the benefits, the project also adversely affected the economy.” 

“There are many indirect costs to the economy on account of diversion of the agricultural lands for a non-agricultural purpose such as erosion of food security and loss of livelihoods for the farmers and the dependent population,” he argued. 

“The State has made no attempt to assess the impact of the project on food security. Therefore, diversion of such a large extent of fertile agricultural land for a non-agricultural purpose also violates Section 10 of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,” he wrote. Sarma also added that despite calling for international competitive enquiry for this project, there has been no response.

“This shows that either this project is inherently non-viable or the prospective bidders, both domestic and overseas, were under the impression that the Singapore Consortium was anyway the favourite of the political leadership of the state and there was no point in their devoting time and effort in responding to the enquiry,” he noted.  

When asked at the ISAS conference how the Singapore companies would benefit, Naidu remarked that AP had an effective government and he could give clearances for companies across the table. “I met with eight companies the previous day, and they said, ‘We don’t want anything, we are willing to compete’. They asked for quick approvals, and I assured them speedy clearance of all documents would be given across the table, and I assured them of transparency,” he said.  

Sarma argued in his letter that as per the AP Infrastructure Development Enabling Act, the government should make public the agreement chronicling the range of risks between the government and the developer. “Since the public is the major stakeholder, the details ought to have been disclosed to them by now. To the best of my knowledge, the disclosure requirement, as envisaged in Section 4 of the RTI Act, has not been complied with,” he wrote. The transparency Naidu spoke of did not apply to the people. The Andhra electorate was chiefly unaware of the happenings around Amaravati construction. 

The TDP also had to keep the farmers at ease. To do so, a programme titled ‘Farmers First’ was constituted. The APCRDA stated in a March 2018 report titled ‘Amaravati Project: Edition 3’ that 123 farmers were sent to Singapore in batches of four to gain “knowledge of urban construction, economic opportunities of urban economy” between October 2017 and February 2018. 

Singapore’s Amaravati Partnership Office (APO), an entity established by the Singapore government, coordinated the visits to ensure that farmers ‘learnt best practices in business and entrepreneurship.’

Chandrababu Naidu flags off farmers’ trip to Singapore
Chandrababu Naidu flags off farmers’ trip to Singapore

Seetharamaiah, a farmer from the Kamma (forward caste) community, gave up his 6.5 acres of land in Guntur’s Thullur mandal. He was one of the farmers who visited Singapore as part of the ‘Farmers First’ programme. “The peace, the lack of pollution in the environment was remarkable. It cannot possibly be replicated here. But I was even more impressed when the government took us to Magarpatta township in Pune,” he said. Magarpatta was a township born out of pooling farming lands from 120 families in 1993 and is touted to be highly successful, as the land has been urbanised, but the title remains with the farmers. 

“I am still waiting for Amaravati so that I can start my business. The YSRCP-led government hasn’t helped us,” he added. He, along with other farmers, hopes for Naidu’s return to power so they can get higher prices for their land. 

Who decides how a capital is shaped?

The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014, which led to the bifurcation of the Telugu states, recommended the constitution of the Sivaramakrishnan Committee, to explore alternatives for the new AP’s new capital.

“ intervene in the urban dynamic (in Amaravati alone) through the concentration of large volumes of capital construction, investment and population infusion would not be desirable…locating several governmental offices in the stretch is both unfeasible and undesirable,” the Committee’s report said. 

In keeping with the dominant objective of decentralised development, the Committee recommended three regions or sub-regions where capital functions and other institutions could be distributed, namely the Vizag region, the Rayalaseema arc and the ‘Kalahasti – Nadikudi spine’, which refers to land along the proposed Kalahasti-Nadikudi railway line. The committee had hoped that Andhra Pradesh would “set an example of a new form of decentralised development that seeks to maintain a balance between the urban and rural, development and environmental conservation and poverty reduction, economic and infrastructure development.”

The Amaravati IRR case is still being heard by the Vijayawada ACB court. While the case is one among the many things Naidu has been pulled up for, anti-incumbency against the YSRCP government has turned the tide. If the TDP comes back to power, the case is likely to go into cold storage. However if the YSRCP is reelected for a second term, the IRR case might well be yet another nail in TDP’s coffin.  

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