City of Illusions

What remains after the Andhra Pradesh government decided to build an ill-advised capital

04 November 2020
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On 20 January, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, introduced a bill in the legislative assembly to form three capitals for the state—an executive capital at Visakhapatnam, a legislative capital at Amaravati and a judicial capital at Kurnool. On 31 July, Biswabhushan Harichandran, the governor of Andhra Pradesh, assented to the plan. This put an end to the project of building a grand capital for Andhra Pradesh in Amaravati, which had been underway for six years after its bifurcation in 2014. Locals I spoke to, told me that the villages and communities of the fertile Krishna river bank, where the city was to come up, are now surrounded by half-built structures, their lives changed forever by a busted real-estate boom, and haunting reminders of a capital that will never be completed. I travelled to Amaravati multiple times between 2014 and 2019, and watched the rise and fall of a dream. On my last visit, in March 2019, the fate of the city already seemed to be sealed.

Amaravati was the brainchild of former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who envisioned it to be a capital tailored for the IT era, such as the one he had helped develop in Hyderabad. During the 2014 elections to the Andhra Pradesh assembly, Naidu successfully pitched himself as the man of the hour—after all, he had ushered in Hyderabad’s IT revolution and nurtured what eventually became Cyberabad.

In August 2014, the Sivaramakrishnan Committee appointed by the union ministry of home affairs suggested that the residual state, instead of setting up a capital in the Vijayawada-Guntur region, distribute the various capital functions and offices across the state to create a decentralised model of development. The government, however, vetoed the plan in September, and announced it would be building a new city near Vijayawada. 

The capital was to take its name from Amaravati, an ancient Buddhist site that was home to the Satavahana kingdom. The messaging was strong. The new city would redeem the pride of the Andhras, who had been forced to relinquish their ownership of two thriving cities—Madras and then Hyderabad—that they had invested heavily in and helped prosper. It evoked the Telugu Desam Party’s founder and actor NT Rama Rao’s battle pitch for Telugu self-respect which had brought the party to power within nine months of its founding in 1983.

The capital would be spread over 30,000 acres, in 30 villages that lay between the highway that connects Vijayawada to Guntur and the Krishna river. It was a daunting task, considering the state’s revenues had fallen drastically after losing Hyderabad and the special status promised by the central government—which included major tax breaks—never came through. But Naidu was in a hurry given that Andhra Pradesh had been given permission to use Hyderabad as capital only for ten years. 

Harsha Vadlamani is an independent photojournalist whose current work focuses on agrarian crises, issues of development and displacement, migration and land rights across India. His work can be seen on https://sriharsha.in.

Keywords: Andhra Pradesh Jagan Mohan Reddy Chandrababu Naidu Amaravati Andhra Capital
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