Explainer on three capitals of Andhra Pradesh

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Hyderabad

Confusion and uncertainty over the capital city of residuary Andhra Pradesh continues to prevail, even after seven years of bifurcation of the combined state. Perhaps, it is the only state in the country which doesn’t have a proper capital till now.

As Amaravati, the world-class capital city on the lines of mythical Mahishmati in the epic film Baahubali, dreamt by Telugu Desam Party president and former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu on the banks of the Krishna, has turned into a virtual ghost city, the three capitals envisioned by his successor Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy on the lines of South Africa are still hanging in thin air, what with the plan caught in a legal wrangle.

With the Andhra Pradesh state assembly on Monday unanimously passing a Bill repealing the two laws enacted in June 2020 on the three capitals, the uncertainty over the state capital has come back to square one.

Though Jagan Reddy vowed to bring back a more comprehensive and fool-proof legislation that would answer all the doubts and overcome legal hurdles, when this uncertainty is going to end still remains a million dollar question.

THE CAPITAL CONUNDRUM

The exercise over identifying the capital city for the residuary Andhra Pradesh began a few months before the bifurcation of the combined state. The UPA government constituted a five-member committee under the chairmanship of former home secretary K Sivaramakrishnan to suggest the place to build the capital city of Andhra Pradesh. The committee travelled to various parts of the state and submitted its report to then Union home minister Rajnath Singh on August 27, 2014.

Though the committee did not recommend any particular place for the capital, it opposed the concept of building a Super City or Smart City on the lines of Hyderabad and also said the capital between Vijayawada and Guntur is incorrect because it would bring up economic and environmental problems.

It also suggested a decentralised model for the capital city through three zones, instead of concentrating all the offices at one place. It, however, recommended that assembly, secretariat and the chief minister’s office should be set up in the state capital city.

However, the newly-formed TDP government headed by N Chandrababu Naidu simultaneously constituted a separate advisory committee headed by minister for municipal administration P Narayana, which also toured different parts of the state and finally came up with the suggestion that the capital should be centrally located, equidistant from all regions of the state.

That was how, the Naidu government zeroed in on the fertile agriculture zone between Vijayawada and Guntur as the capital city and named it as Amaravati, an ancient city of Sathavahana dynasty on the banks of the Krishna river which later transformed into a famed Buddhist centre, located a few kilometres from the proposed capital city.

Thus, Naidu completely ignored the recommendations of the Sivaramakrishnan Committee and chose Amaravati as the capital. Though Jagan Reddy, too, extended his support to the establishment of the capital city at Amaravati, he later alleged that Naidu deliberately chose the place to benefit his own Kamma caste people, who bought big chunks of land as they were privy to the information about the location of the capital there.

In December 2014, the Naidu government announced creation of a world class greenfield capital city in over 7,000 sq km area at Amaravati, much larger than Brihan Mumbai. He established AP Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) through a legislation in the state assembly to develop the capital city.

APCRDA began acquiring 33,000 acres of fertile land from the farmers of 29 villages under land pooling by conducting gram sabhas to take their consent. APCRDA entered into an agreement with the farmers promising them to allot residential and commercial plots in the developed capital region whose value would match their original land value. Besides, it also agreed to pay certain amount of annuity to the farmers every year, besides subsistence allowance to the landless agriculture labourers.

The foundation stone for the new capital Amaravati was laid on October 22, 2015, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Soon, the Naidu government moved its seat of power from Hyderabad to Amaravati and it had built an interim government complex, a temporary high court building, a legislature complex, and even bungalows and apartments for lawmakers, judges, and officers in the next three years.

While the Centre gave 2,500 crore for building the capital, the Naidu government obtained loans from banks. Even the World Bank had finalised a US $ 300 million loan for the Amaravati capital city. While the master plan for the capital was done by the Singapore government-run consultancy, the designs for the capital buildings were to be done by Foster and Partners of London.

CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT, CHANGE OF PRIORITIES

But even before the grandiose plans of Naidu on Amaravati came to a shape, he lost power to YSR Congress party led by Jagan Mohan Reddy in May 2019.

Within hours of taking charge as the new chief minister, Jagan hinted at dropping Amaravati as the state capital. He ordered that all ongoing works in the capital city be stalled forthwith and all payments made to the contractors be stopped.

For the next six months, there was practically no activity in Amaravati capital region and the contractors abandoned the place due to lack of payments from the government and workers being left with no work.

On December 17, 2019, Jagan suddenly came up with the idea of three capital cities – executive capital at Visakhapatnam, judicial capital at Kurnool and legislative capital at Amaravati. He made an announcement in the assembly to that effect, triggering massive protests from farmers of Amaravati, who gave away their lands for the capital.

In fact, the Jagan government had begun the ground work on the three capital silently much earlier. He appointed an expert committee headed by retired IAS officer G N Rao and engaged an international consultancy – Boston Consultancy Group to work on the alternative capital models. And both the committees submitted their reports in a gap of one week, supporting the three capitals idea envisaged by Jagan.

Jagan argued that the Sivaramakrishnan committee recommended decentralised administration, as focusing the entire development on one single mega capital would do injustice to other regions of the state. But his intention was obvious: he did not want to continue anything that his arch rival Naidu had planned.

In January, the Jagan government introduced the two separate bills –the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, seeking to establish three capital cities and the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (Repeal) Bill, 2020 — aimed at doing away with the authority created to develop Amaravati as the capital.

Both the bills were passed by the state legislative assembly on January 20, 2020, but were stalled by the majority TDP members in the legislative council the following day. This prompted Jagan to move a resolution seeking abolition of the legislative council.

Even as the farmers of Amaravati launched a massive agitation against the three capitals’ plan, the Jagan government went ahead with his proposal. Finally, in June 2020, the Jagan government reintroduced the two bills in the state assembly and got them passed again.

Though the council stalled the bills again and recommended them to select committee, the officials of the state legislature stalled them on procedural grounds. Finally, on July 31, Governor Biswa Bhushan Harichandan gave its consent for the bills, which then became Acts.

The farmers of Amaravati who formed into a joint action committee moved the high court challenging the two Acts. More than a hundred petitions were filed before the high court, most of them backed by the TDP.

THREE CAPITALS IN LEGAL WRANGLE

A division bench of the high court headed by former chief justice J K Maheshwari took up the hearing in August 2020 and ordered status quo on the capitals, thereby stalling the three capitals plan.

The bench had a prolonged hearing of arguments from the counsels of the farmers as well as the government. But even as the hearing was going on, Justice Maheshwari was transferred, apparently after a letter written by Jagan Reddy to then CJI A J Bobde, making certain allegations against some high court judges including Maheshwari.

Later, the issue came up before another bench headed by new chief justice Aroop Kumar Goswami, but it could not take up the hearing due to Covid-19 pandemic. The hearing was postponed twice and was finally posted on November 15, 2021.

By then, Justice Goswami was transferred and the fresh bench headed by new CJ Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra took up the hearing.

But even as the hearing was going on, the Jagan government suddenly announced withdrawal of the two legislations on the three capitals and abolition of the APCRDA on Monday. A bill repealing the earlier two legislations was passed by the assembly.

WHY REPEALING THE CAPITAL BILLS?

The chief minister did not explain the reasons for repealing the bills. He only said his government would bring a “better” and more “comprehensive” bill that would answer all the doubts of some sections of people over the three capitals and clears all legal queries.

He sought to blame the TDP for this uncertainty over the capitals, as it was spreading apprehensions among a section of people and creating legal hurdles in the process. “The Act was being withdrawn in the larger public interest,” he said.

A CMO official familiar with the development said legal experts had told Jagan that the legislations on the three capitals might be dismissed by the high court as there were a few loopholes. “The agreement between the APCRDA and the farmers on land pooling is fool-proof and it cannot be cancelled unilaterally by the government,” he said.

Secondly, the high court was established at Amaravati with a Presidential order after taking consent from the Supreme Court. “The Jagan government cannot shift the judicial capital to Kurnool without the Supreme Court’s approval,” he said.

These and a few other factors, forced the Jagan government to repeal the earlier laws on three capitals.

WAY OUT FOR JAGAN, NOW

Now, the question is what will the Jagan government do now. The chief minister made it clear that there is no question of going back on the three capitals plan. He only said he would bring about a more comprehensive bill on the same in future.

However, it is not certain when he is going to do that. A senior YSRC functionary said on condition of anonymity that the government will appoint another committee comprising legal experts to work out the new legislation that would address the legal issues.

“Maybe, he will retain the judicial and legislative capital at Amaravati with a bench at Kurnool and shift the executive capital to Viskhapatnam. He may also establish regional development boards for all the three regions. But it is too early to talk about what is in Jagan’s mind,” he said.

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