Pooling for a Capital

V Rishi Kumar | Updated on January 24, 2018



By using the unique land acquisition model to build Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu might have sold his vision to the people. But the real test lies ahead, reports V Rishi Kumar

Srinivas Reddy is worried. The 49-year-old tenant farmer in Penumaka, a village in Guntur - about 280 km from Hyderabad - has been growing multiple crops on a fertile, four-acre plot for 30 years. Water is ample; one doesn’t need to dig more than 10 feet for the water to gush out, thanks to the nearby flowing Krishna. He employs up to 70 labourers and pays ₹30,000 per acre every year as rent. Still Reddy, whose son is pursuing MBA, manages to make a profit of about ₹1.5-2 lakh annually.

But the farmer might have just sowed his last crop.

The owner of the four-acre plot will surrender it to the Andhra Pradesh Government, which is pooling land to build a new capital. In June 2014 the State was divided and its then capital, Hyderabad, became part of the newly formed Telangana. Though Hyderabad could be a common capital for the two states for 10 years, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu had other ideas. He zeroed in on the region comprising Penumaka and other 28 villages to build a new capital.

“I don’t know what will be my fate,” says Reddy. “Other than agriculture, I have never ever tried anything else. My future is uncertain,” adds the farmer.

It is a story that is repeated in Penumaka and other villages within a radius of 25 km. The new capital, christened Amaravati, will rise here. The villages come under two districts Guntur and Krishna, where Vijayawada is located. The ‘real’ Amaravati is 35 km away. It is a sleepy town on the banks of Krishna and is a centre for Buddhism, the pilgrims coming there seeking peace.

But it is an uneasy calm that welcomes visitors in these 29 villages, a half-an-hour drive from the bustling Vijayawada. As one travels around, talks of bhosekarana (land pooling) dominate the summer air of 48 degree celsius heat. At roadside tea shops, people are huddled. Between passionate debates on land pooling, there is helpless silence. Chief Minister Naidu performed Bhoomi Pooja (ground breaking ceremony) on 6th June in Mandadam, another village close to Penumaka. Construction would commence by Dasara in October.

Most of the villagers seem to have accepted that nothing can change this situation. Of the 29 villages from where land is to be pooled, residents of 27 villages have agreed to part with their lands. The villages have a population of a little over a lakh and include farmers, farm hands and educated, but unemployed youths. All have questions.

Sheik Asha, a 70-year-old farm worker from Undavalli, is in tears as she holds on to my hands. Asha, who earns ₹300 per day, wants to know what will happen to her once the lands are taken away. “I work everyday and support my handicapped son and grandson, what about me?”

Similarly, in the nearby village of Mandadam, 21 year-old Katta Balakrishna is also worried. He recently graduated from an engineering college. After his family surrendered three acres, Balakrishna hopes that the development of new capital would help him get a job. “The authorities have assured us we will get jobs in local companies and offices,” he says, but not without an element of uncertainty.

The leader’s dream

The man in the middle of this massive land pooling exercise covering 34,000 acres - Chief Minister Naidu - will have to be mindful of these questions. For the moment Naidu seems to have been successful in aligning these villagers along his vision for the new capital, which will be a modern, smart city, akin to Singapore. In his earlier stint at the helm, Naidu had showcased Hyderabad to the world. But his focus on the city had made others dub him anti-farmer and he eventually lost the elections in 2004.

He has called the latest project a “lifetime opportunity” for the people. It is for him too. If the assurances made for land pooling are kept and the phase one of the capital is developed by 2019, Naidu would have etched his legacy. But if the start is any indication, it won’t be easy going.

In late 2014, when he announced the Government’s decision to build a new capital in the Vijayawada–Guntur region, he was going against expert advice. Naidu’s rationale was that the region has the infrastructure and environs needed for Amaravati - a river front capital that would be centrally located, well connected by rail, road and air.

But in selecting this fertile, water-rich location, he had overlooked suggestions made by the KC Sivaramkrishnan Committee appointed by the Centre. The Committee, intending to retain the fertile land along the Krishna, had suggested Srikalahstri, close to the temple town of Tirupati as one of the options. The Committee was also against the one “super capital” concept, and instead had recommended developing several, smaller cities.

Naidu’s most contentious decision has been the model for acquiring the 34,000 acres. He realised that the acquisition route using the Land Acquisition Act has not been entirely successful in the country. “The political leadership in consultation with the land owners and local leaders decided that the best way to secure the land for the capital was through the land pooling process where owners become part of the development process,” says Srikant Nagulapalli, Commissioner, AP Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA). Naidu has entrusted the young IAS officer with the land pooling exercise and the implementation of the capital project. But the rationale has not convinced everyone. In an article in The Hindu in April, just a month before he passed away, Sivaramakrishnan noted: “What AP is trying to do is very different to land pooling attempted elsewhere… the success of the Gujarat land pooling plan, which is often mentioned in this context, took place in dense urban areas where the negotiations had a touch of realism. Plans were published repeatedly in a bid to seek consent and it was clear what the authorities intended and what the land holders would be getting.”

Former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam, who was also the administrative officer of Chandigarh capital project echoes these views: "Building a capital in such a large area, taking away land from the farmers was not necessary. The Government could have narrowed down to about 4,000 - 5,000 acres for the project implementation and restricted it to government land and a smaller area. This is nothing but an effort to boost real estate.”

Two retired judges have legally questioned the validity of the CRDA. The National Green Tribunal has issued notices to the State’s Ministry of Forests and Environment and APCRDA for beginning work on the new capital on the banks of Krishna without conducting environmental impact assessment.

Banking on the model

The capital region would be spread over 54,000 acres, including 34,000 acres of pooled land and 20,000 acres of government area that will have water bodies and forest.

The biggest selling point of the land pooling model is making the displaced villagers a part of the development process. The Naidu Government will give each farmer ₹30,000 to ₹50,000 per acre a year for 10 years, depending upon the land-use pattern. Additionally, each of the villagers will be given two plots of land - 300 sq yards for commercial use and 1,000 square yards to build a home - in the new city. In the case of Jareeb farmers, the Government has enhanced the compensation. Jareeb lands have a higher value as these are located on the river front. Owners of Jareeb land will get a larger, 450 square yard commercial plot. In the case of farm hands, the Government proposes to give ₹2,500 per month per family for 10 years and will help them get jobs. A socio-economic survey in now underway in the villages to identify workers. “The Government is in the process of setting up skill development centres in league with corporate houses, Industrial Training Institutes and engineering colleges to skill local people,” says Nagulapalli. The Government has also offered to waive farmers’ loans and promised free education to their children.

Naidu has made sure that his best men are on the ground overseeing the process. P Narayana, Minister, Municipal Administration and Urban Development, and Prathipati Pulla Rao, Agriculture Minister, have been camping at the villages, overseeing the land pooling process and interacting with locals. A large administrative mechanism has been put in place. In each of the villages, bureaucrats of the rank of Deputy Collector have been posted. A different set of officials interact with the assignees and encroachers. While assignees are those who have got rights from the government to use the land for personal use, the encroachers don’t have any legal rights.

Not surprisingly, the model has evoked national interest. A team from Delhi, including a former senior bureaucrat from the Prime Minister’s Office, was recently in the region. It interacted with officials on the gound to understand the land pooling process.

Naidu has enlisted the services of the Singapore Government to develop the capital region plan. The Singapore Government has submitted two reports, including an overall regional master plan and a capital region plan. The plan for the core capital region, which will house the secretariat and the assembly, will be presented by mid-July.

While these modalities are being formalised, Naidu knows that the most crucial factor in the making of Amaravati would be the support of the people.

Dynamic ground conditions

Polisetty Srinivasa Rao, 38, has surrendered his three-acre plot in Undavalli, one of the 29 villages. “I grow bananas, drumsticks and some other vegetables. I was not sure how to go about but decided to give in as most of the people around had decided to give up their lands as the deadline approached. Don’t know what will be my future,” he says.

Adds G Shivashankar Rao, 63, who owns 1.5 acres of land: “We are not in favour. But when everyone around us surrenders, we may have to do so. We need clarity as to where the developed land would be allotted. The land value currently ruling is about ₹5-6 crore per acre,” he explains.

It is clear, as one interacts with people in the villages, that peer pressure is one of the main reasons for parting with land. For a few of the owners, the project has become an opportunity to monetise their assets as their children not interested in farming.

Political and caste factors have also played a role. In Thullur, a group of about 335 families come under the scheduled caste bracket and are “assignee” owners of the land. While they have agreed to part with the land, the villagers are awaiting clarity on the compensation. Some of the protesting villages – at least four out of the 29 – are the stronghold of YSR Congress, the main opposition party to Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh.

“While the people are not opposed to the process, they are concerned at the huge extent of land being pooled,” says Y Radhakrishna of All India Kisan Sabha, an organisation representing farmers. “There is still lack of clarity with regard to ‘assigned’ lands. Secondly, there is also lack of clarity when it comes to where the owner would get the developed land, both for residence and also commercial land.”

It may not come as much of an assurance that the Naidu Government has decided to use the lottery system to allocate land once the capital city is developed. While the Government has promised that the allocated land will be as close as possible to the original holding, the allocation would be based on the overall master plan. And no one knows if the value of the allotted land will matchthat of their present holding.

Interestingly, a number of people including farmers and workers have started migrating. Farmers have sold the land to people who think that value of land will increase as the new capital comes up. These farmers are buying land and settling down in new locations. Workers are migrating to other farming hubs in search of jobs. As daily wagers, they can’t afford to wait for the Government to start giving them the monthly compensation of ₹2,500. Many think the amount itself is now enough as they earn ₹300 a day working on the farms.

For everyone, it is a wait for the capital.

Published on June 08, 2015

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