Andhra Pradesh’s capital conundrums

Will designating three capitals for the State promote ‘distributed development’?

Andhra Pradesh is witnessing a ‘Game of Thrones’-like gritty politics involving capital cities. Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSRCP government proposed a three-capital plan in the previous session of the Assembly. As per the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, the State will have Visakhapatnam, Amaravati and Kurnool respectively as the executive, legislative and judicial capitals of the State.

The matter has become contentious along political party lines and the Bill is facing myriad legal and procedural challenges. The proposal is set to replace the ambitious plan of the previous government, led by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), of building Amaravati as a world-class greenfield capital city. The proposed three-capital plan claims to produce decentralised growth, but will it achieve the goal?

After the State’s bifurcation in 2014, the then Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP, never missed an opportunity to create a hype around the project. And his own ambitious attempt to make it work with the land-pooling model captured everybody’s attention. The project remained in news, thanks to dissent from protesting farmers, environmental activists and the mirage of hyped investments in the city.

A fait accompli

It is necessary to acknowledge the origins of the three-capital plan. The attribution to similar plans in South Africa and elsewhere can be shallow, though these might have influenced the thinking of the K.C. Sivaramakrishnan (KCS) Committee that made recommendations along similar lines. However, the KCS committee’s own origins can explain this thinking. The committee was constituted in the aftermath of a bifurcation driven by an agitation legitimised and politicised by regional imbalances in development. The Terms of Reference (ToR) for the committee explicitly stress the overall development of backward regions in the State. They refer to the existing uneven development: the backward north-coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema districts compared to the central coastal districts. The ToR also stress least disturbance to agricultural lands. Decentralised development has thus become a fait accompli for the committee to recommend, especially in the backdrop of the coruscating sub-nationalism that was running high at the time.

Given his proclivities for mega-scale thinking, Mr. Naidu, as the first CM after the bifurcation, had little patience for this moderate path of rebuilding a new State. As someone who flaunted Hyderabad’s growth as a ‘world-class’ city under his rule, Mr. Naidu saw in 2014 an opportunity to build yet another ‘world-class’ city. He put his entire might in envisioning Amaravati. Mr. Naidu’s obsession with a ‘world-class’ capital, combined with the neglect of a coherent development agenda, seems to have cost the TDP. The YSRCP is now riding on this discontent.

Though the YSRCP government’s rationalisation of the three-capital plan leans on the KCS committee’s recommendations, there is a difference between the two. While the government’s formula of three capitals — calling them judicial, legislative and executive capitals — appears to be an imported idea, perhaps inspired by the South African example, the KCS committee stressed distributed development through decentralised governance. The essence of the ‘distributed development’ concept was to make deliberate efforts to spatially deconcentrate executive power, driven by region-specific economic activities. For instance, while discussing the Vizag region’s suitability, the committee recommends having government offices relevant to local economic potential, such as for ports, shipping, fisheries and industry, in Visakhapatnam. Further, the panel recommended developing the Visakhapatnam region as a high-tech zone. In a similar manner, it recommends developing the ‘Rayalaseema Arc’, building on the Hyderabad-Kurnool-Anantpur-Bengaluru highway, and the ‘Kalahasti Spine’, using the potential of Nadikudi-Kalahasti railway line.

Distinct challenges

There may be other reasons for the functionally organised, multiple-capital plan. But the key principle of ‘distributed development’ must not be lost in executing it. The following points may help in ensuring that.

First, the multi-capital plan is beset with difficult challenges for the government’s functioning. Running legislative business with most of the secretariat located 400 km away can lead to logistic nightmares and inefficiencies, especially in the absence of efficient infrastructure. Andhra Pradesh can learn from Maharashtra’s experience of running Winter Sessions in Nagpur, aimed essentially at placating regional sentiments. International experiences — including that of South Africa — of deconcentrating executive power by shifting capitals to address regional sentiments do not inspire confidence either. However, Andhra Pradesh has the advantage of a clean slate and does not have to move an existing capital.

Thus, the success of distributed development depends on a well-developed infrastructural network linking the growth centres. Andhra Pradesh lacks these linkages now, and sooner the State focuses on these preconditions the better for it. A re-invigorated focus on projects like the Chennai-Visakhapatnam Industrial Corridor is important.

Second, infrastructure development within cities — the proposed growth centres — is critical. The KCS committee stressed this extensively. Visakhapatnam, as the executive capital, will experience much stress. The basis cannot be just the availability of land and built-up area, but also the ability to cope with such an intense development. Visakhapatnam, in spite of its excellent and natural advantages, is woefully lacking in its infrastructure. It could not even deliver a functional Bus Rapid Transit system, even with the availability of resources.

Third, it is necessary to be conscious of the dynamics set off by these plans, with weak institutions to regulate growth. Unbridled real estate interests can co-opt local State institutions and sabotage environmental interests. The KCS committee warns about the environmental impact of such intensification and densification in cities, with a special reference to Visakhapatnam. The recent environmental disasters, including the LG Polymers gas leak, expose the city’s vulnerabilities. The ongoing processes of preparing the Master Plan and Strategic Plan for the Visakhapatnam Metropolitan Region are an opportunity to address these challenges. Ad hocism and a casual approach can undo its future potential.

Finally, the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020 is thin in details but offers hope in its broad contours of pursuing inclusive development through Zonal Planning and Development Boards. Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy now stands at a crossroads: he can either leave the State mired in the alleged “capitalising politics”, or work towards a vibrant and well-governed Andhra Pradesh by pursuing the true spirit of “distributed development”, irrespective of how the functionalised multiple-capital plan plays out.

Srinivas Chokkakula is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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