Amaravati Reveals How Public Projects in India Remain Dependent on Whims of Politicians

Every large urban undertaking lays bare the efficiency of the systems, the capacity to self-organise and the nature of leadership that drives them. In the making of Amaravati, none of it appears reassuring.

There have been complaints and confusions abound over the Amaravati city project. What could have become a promising ground for innovations is fast turning into an embarrassing example of whimsical planning. The latest instance of befuddlement is the complaint from the Japanese design firm, Maki and Associates, which was declared the winner of the Amaravati capital complex design competition in March but was later removed from the project by the Andhra Pradesh government in October.

In a letter sent a few weeks ago to the Council of Architecture, the statutory body meant to oversee the professional and educational standards, Fumihiko Maki, the principal architect, has alleged unfair practice, a lack of transparency and ‘choreographed appointment’ of new architects. He has denounced his removal as ‘fraudulent.’

Since March 2014, when the central government set up an expert committee to assist the successor state of Andhra Pradesh to find alternatives to the new capital, the project has been marked by bad decisions.

First, the expert committee found no merit in the idea of building a new capital city and cautioned that it was not a feasible option. Second, it remarked that instead of imagining a green field city such as Chandigarh or Gandhinagar, a distributed urban development by expanding existing cities is preferable.

However, the Chandrababu Naidu government rejected the recommendations and announced the construction of Amaravati, a new capital near Vijayawada and Guntur.

Surbana-Jurong, a Singapore-based consortium, was parachuted to draw the plan. The proposal envisioned a capital region spread over 8600 sq km that would have a population of 11.25 million in 20 years – a figure many Indian cities took centuries to reach. The plan also promised that about 3.36 million jobs would be generated and Amaravati would be a pioneering smart city.

For good reasons, instant cities such as Amaravati are often sceptically viewed. Such visions have perpetuated exclusiveness and large-scale displacements. The open-ended, complex nature of urban centres and their unpredictable trajectories have also mocked the idea of total design. Indian cities in particular demand that formal plans should incorporate informal sectors. Designs for Amaravati have not yet demonstrated any admirable innovations that address these issues. Land pooling policy that was meant to mobilise large parcels of land for the project has also come under scrutiny.

The state government, instead of seriously reviewing the plan and its unrealistic projections, was only keen to verify if the proposals complied with Vastu principles – traditional planning ideas that border astrology. When they found that the Singapore plans had overlooked those principles, the state government sought modifications. Consequently, the streets were oriented to align with cosmic forces, an axis for energy flow was provided along with green spaces at brahmasthan or auspicious centre.

Following this, in 2015, renowned international architectural firms were invited to submit designs for about a million square metre capital complex. Ten firms lined up, but the government, without much explanation, set them aside and invited three firms – Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers. This too changed and later three contenders, Maki and Associates, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and Vastu Shilpa led by B.V. Doshi were eventually invited. The jury, which included a Vastu consultant, awarded the design to Maki and Associates.

When the designs were made public, there was an online protest. The proposed buildings looked alienating and much like pale imitations of Chandigarh. A few protestors questioned why Indian designers were not considered and why stiff entry barriers that discouraged larger participation had been imposed.

The state government conveniently concluded that the problem was in style and not in substance, and directed the Japanese architects to modify the design to ‘incorporate local Indian influence’ – read domes, arches and courtyards. Simultaneously, adding to the confusion, it also asked seven empaneled architects to design the same capitol complex buildings.

Maki and Associates have in their complaint letter raised doubts about the credibility and usefulness of this exercise. They have also alleged that the government officials during their “six-hour stopover” at the Tokyo office in July insisted that their firm must work with Hafeez Contractor, a Mumbai-based designer, as the local architect. Despite having their own Indian collaborator, the Japanese architects agreed to work with Contractor.

The Japanese design firm in their letter has explained that they modified their proposals. It redesigned some of the iconic buildings, reduced project fee by a percentage point, made changes to their local office by partnering with another large Indian architecture firm and resubmitted the technical proposal.

However, in October, in a sudden move, the Andhra Pradesh government issued a termination notice to them citing problems like “adverse public reaction, disproportionate fee, unchanged manpower proposal and concerns toward executing the project in the given time frame.”

The architects have denied all charges except the first one and termed their termination as “willful removal” without regard to process codified in the contract signed by the government.

In December, the state appointed the UK-based Foster and Partners along with Contractor as the new architects for the project. Additionally, to the dismay of many, the government decided to model Amaravati in the lines of the fantasy city portrayed in the popular mythical film Baahubali.

It callously overlooked the distinction between cardboard scenography and complex design, and symbols of feudalism and suitable architecture for democracy and tried to recruit the film director to advise on the city planning.

The issue is not just about how political interference marginalised professionals and ignored their advice. Nor the demand to make planning collaborative in itself is unreasonable. City building goes through a tumultuous process. Negotiation, conflict management and group decision are integral to it. What is of concern are the frequent and opaque changes, the lack of professionalism and accountability.

The real danger in the Amaravati story is that a serious, positive planning process has been turned into a flight of whimsy and that public projects remain captive to state caprice. Every large urban undertaking lays bare the efficiency of the systems, the capacity to self-organise and the nature of leadership that drives them. In the making of the Amaravati, none of it appears reassuring.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.