Amaravati, an Example of Flawed Urban Policy

The planned city of Amaravati, new capital city of Andhra Pradesh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Andhra Pradesh’s new ‘world-class’ capital city will require enormous amounts of energy and resources to build and to run, while destroying precious natural environments and local livelihoods.

The planned Amaravati city. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On August 10, the National Green Tribunal heard a report raising objections to Amaravati, the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh planned by the state government – the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party.

Delhi-based architect Romi Khosla and physicist Vikram Soni, who have been working on their concept of the ‘natural city’ since 2014, say that their concept presents a new model for Asia’s urbanisation. They collaborated with Satyanarayana Bolisetti, an activist from Andhra Pradesh who has been fighting for farmers’ rights and the protection of river floodplains, on the report. It argues that Amaravati’s planned location on the southern floodplains of the river Krishna violates laws, making the city environmentally unsustainable and potentially dangerous for human life.

Khosla and Soni have designed an alternate Amaravati, or ‘Amaravati Natural City’, and have submitted these plans to Naidu’s office, which has not yet responded.

A global and narrow vision

Using a method called ‘land pooling’ – that has been criticised by farmers, activists and others – the Naidu government has acquired over 30,000 acres of land on the southern banks of the river Krishna. It promises a ‘world-class’ capital city in the style of Singapore or Dubai , with glittering corporate and government buildings overlooking the river, wide avenues, a golf course, high-rise residential complexes and malls and casinos on islands in the river. The Singapore-based firm Subarna Jurong prepared the master plan for Amaravati.

This particular vision is unsurprising and far from original. It is in line with the corporate-driven, trickle down model of development that international consultant organisations such as the McKinsey Global Institute and Scott Wilson have recommended India follow in the coming decades, and that the Narendra Modi government has adhered to.

Khosla has addressed Mckinsey’s recommendations in its report, India’s Global Awakening, in an article he wrote in Economic and Political Weekly. Writing about establishing industrial corridors, mega-cities and high-speed rail lines and roads, Khosla warns:

“The enormous footprint and mega presence of new projects does not address the critical factor of ecological balance through self-sufficiency in a global environment which is struggling to fight climate change. The implementation of these projects in the form planned in these reports will destroy precious natural environmental resources, while at the same time snatching what remains from existing users by impoverishing villages and farms.”

As Khosla, Soni and several other experts have been pointing out, mega-cities require enormous – unsustainable – amounts of energy and resources to build and to run, while destroying precious natural environments and local livelihoods. Amaravati promises to be but the next example of this kind of flawed urban policy.

The BJP-led government has so far supported Naidu’s extravagant Amaravati, despite two government-backed reports questioning many of the city’s aspects and Andhra Pradesh itself mired in debt.

In 2014, the Union government formed a committee under the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act 2014, headed by K.C. Sivaramakrishnan and comprising urban planners and design experts, to explore site options for the new capital city. In August, the committee recommended that the Andhra Pradesh government focus on long-term development through building a larger landscape of cities and towns, rather than building a single ‘super-city’. It also said the large-scale takeover of fertile agricultural land was unfavourable, as this would lead to a lack of food security in the long run.

In December, the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority Act 2014 or APCRDA established a group by the same name. The Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority was the body authorised to conduct the land pooling and build the city. The APCRDA commissioned Tata Consulting Engineers to issue an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. When published, the report included a number of directives for the state government, including that the construction and subsequent functioning of Amaravati would not cause any environmental damage.

Despite these recommendations, in September, Naidu announced that the region around Vijayawada, Guntur, Tenali and Mangalagiri – the ‘food bowl’ of the southern Krishna floodplains, one of the most fertile agrarian strips in the country – would be the location of the state’s new capital city.

Khosla, Soni and Bolisetti contend that apart from being environmentally, economically and socially destructive, the Naidu government’s plans are in clear violation of the recommendations made by both the Sivaramakrishnan committee and the EIA. They claim that their Amaravati Natural City is an alternative to Naidu’s Subarna Jurong Amaravati, and also a model for a new kind of Indian city as the country continues to face water scarcity and climate change – a city that demonstrates how humans can live healthily and harmoniously with nature.

Playing with water

The stretch along the Krishna on which Amaravati will be built is a highly fertile floodplain – or a catchment area that replenishes itself naturally during rainfall and flooding, maintaining the water level of the soil, as well as the flow and ecology of the river, by continuously absorbing and discharging water.

Constructing on a floodplain would destroy that natural system of absorption and discharge and severely raise the risk of flash flooding, Khosla and Bolisetti explain. Several recent disasters have been the result of encroachment – buildings, roads, dams and embankments – on floodplains: the flooding of the Adyar and Coovam rivers in Chennai, of the Mithi river channel in Mumbai, in Srinagar and in Uttarakhand. Building Amaravati on the Krishna floodplain is akin to asking for a repeat of one of these disasters.

However, rather than being a threat to human life, floodplains could in fact be a resource – as long as they are allowed to replenish and balance themselves. Soni explains that floodplain water is one of the last unpolluted sources of water for Indian cities: the water extracted from a floodplain is pure, since it comes from the late monsoon flood, which annually flushes out the pollution in the river.

Instead of destroying the floodplain with buildings, as the government-backed Subarna Jurong would do, Khosla, Soni and Bolisetti’s version of Amravati has planned to preserve two and a half kilometres of floodplain on either side of the Krishna. The preserved floodplain will easily yield an annual 60-75 million cubic metres (MCM) of water, which will be adequate for a population of a million people. The value of this yield at today’s prices can be taken as Rs 900 crores a year, in itself a great economic benefit.

Delhi is already using this non-invasive method to obtain 56 MCM of water a year, drawn from a 20 km length of the northern Yamuna floodplains. The Delhi Jal Board, under chairman and water minister Kapil Mishra, plans to increase this supply to 100 MCM a year.

In a booklet on Amaravati Natural City, published in both Telegu and English and distributed to farmers, Khosla and Soni write of the severe and numerous water scarcity problems that India faces: polluted and overdrawn rivers, groundwater depletion and invasive dams.

The International Water Management Institute has categorised India as a ‘water stress zone’ and indicated that 33% of India’s rivers are severely or moderately polluted across their entirety. India and China are the world’s largest countries with water stress, which will only become an irreversible catastrophe unless careful action is taken to conserve and manage water.

Khosla and his colleagues contend that urban planning in India needs to confront and work with the realities of water scarcity. Projects based on the ‘McKinsey model’ – Amaravati and others undertaken and planned by the BJP government – do just the opposite.

Playing with lives

Naidu’s government has been presenting Amaravati as a capital city ‘for all’ – as India’s first urban centre of truly global standards. But farmers, activists and others have been questioning the government’s motives and methods, asking just who the new city will benefit.

In a presentation in Delhi in July 2016, Khosla and Soni described how the land chosen for Amaravati is currently the source of a vibrant agro-economy that yields Rs 1000 crore per year, with complete linkages from farm to market and many participating women entrepreneurs. The soil here is so rich that over 20,000 farmers in the 29 villages grow three or more crops annually and more than 120 varieties in total. Even marginal farmers who own half an acre or less earn more than Rs 30,000 each month. The destruction of the Krishna floodplain for the construction of Amaravati would mean the destruction of this rich local economy and these livelihoods.

In December 2014, the Andhra Pradesh government began its own unique process of ‘land pooling’ to acquire the 30,000 acres required for Amaravati. Ever since it started, farmers and others have claimed that the terms on which the pooling is taking place are economically unfair for farmers and that the government’s methods in convincing farmers to give up their lands coercive. They have pointed out that the APCRDA is solely comprised of businessmen and that there is a total lack of transparency and representation of the real stakeholders in the decision-making.

Following the start of land pooling, Bolisetti, who was contesting for the position of MP from the Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha constituency at the time, wrote a letter to Naidu elaborating on all the reasons why constructing the capital city where planned was such a bad idea.

The National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), a network of social activists, has been spearheading the opposition since. In January 2015, it alleged that the Naidu government has a “hidden agenda”. Former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam, who led a fact-finding team of NAPM for investigating the 29 villages within the planned capital region, said that the APCRDA Act was “introduced in the Assembly overnight and passed [with] no public consultation”, and was “against the Constitution and… violative of the Land Acquisition Law of 2013”.

NAPM also organised a national convention in Delhi, in January 2015, in collaboration with the All India Union of Forest Working People, Delhi Solidarity Group, Jan Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti and other groups, to oppose the BJP government’s Land Ordinance Bill, which withdrew certain requirements in land acquisition for certain projects, such as the Social Impact Assessment and consent of land owners. The Bill lapsed in August and never came into being, but, as Bolisetti points out, the question of the constitutionality of the APCRDA Act, which is based on the Bill, and the method of land acquisition it allows, remains.

These farmers and critics have been questioning how the Andhra Pradesh government can proceed with a project that affects lakhs of individuals without real participation from those very people, is clearly environmentally destructive and finally how the Union government can back it.

Amaravati is destructive and inequitable in its very conception and creation and promises to remain so after it is built. A city like Amaravati – of glass, steel and concrete, posh centres and poor peripheries, flyovers connecting peripheries to the centre, malls and high-rise complexes – is friendly only to those who want and can afford the consumerist lifestyle that will feed such a city and who can afford to avoid the waste and pollution that will result from it.

Moreover, as Khosla and Soni write, “Asia cannot copy the industrialised countries which have stable cities, landscapes and populations. In Asia there is too much poverty, unemployment and immigration.”Although the authors do generalise about the vast and varied region of Asia here, their insights make meaningful the fact that many of Asia’s cities, including Delhi and Mumbai in India, have become invasive, feeding their own cycles of poverty and pollution. The Subarna Jurong city promises to turn into another such invasive mega-city. It presents no sustainable or equitable alternatives.

Through their concept of the ‘natural city’, Khosla and his colleagues have been arguing that urban spaces in India need to be planned so as to be in balance, with themselves and their environments – to be ‘natural’ rather than ‘invasive’, in the sense that “all living organisms maintain a steady state reflected in their internal equilibrium”. In other words, India needs to fundamentally redefine and redesign its idea of urbanisation to cohesively address the problems of climate change, resource and energy scarcity, social inequity and poverty.

Some positives

There are some features that demonstrate the city’s internal equilibrium and cohesiveness in values and practice – the simultaneous preservation and use of the Krishna floodplains and its waters is one such feature.

Another positive feature is its checkerboard layout. In Khosla and Soni’s blueprint, built spaces alternate with open spaces of farms, pastures, orchards and forests, each block is two kilometres squared. The urban farms, pastures and orchards, irrigated by the city’s treated wastewater, will make the city self-sufficient in vegetables, fruits and dairy products. And such a layout will ensure ‘green convention’ – pulling cooler air from the green spaces into the warmer built areas – and bring down the overall temperature of the city by two or three degrees, just one of the many ways the city will be energy efficient and run on the principle of recycling rather than consumption and waste.

At the same time, the city’s checkerboard design will work towards diversity in jobs and social groups, as individuals in occupations traditionally considered ‘rural’ or ‘urban’ will live side-by-side. This will in turn contribute to entrepreneurial innovation and talent as new climate, water and landscape-related jobs are created.

In a report on the Modi government’s Smart Cities project, Khosla writes:

“…the new Smart Cities [are] primarily the product of a global financial imagination where mobile capital can describe its own deals and then descend to feed off them before moving on… A smart city is a giant corporation within which there are small-er corporations and within which there are still smaller sub-corporations all of whom have invested in the city and whose investments are at stake … For the Government of the day, Smart cities are a symbol of a new future for India in which the freedom of fulfilled aspirations will be guaranteed to those who migrate and get employed and integrated into the prosperity and values of a new industrialised future… where corporations provide finance, policy guidance and political options. This is a global venture.”

How will Naidu’s ‘world-class’ capital city ‘for all’ avoid being this kind of disaster?