“Capital punishment”: One year of Jagan’s rule in Andhra Pradesh

The decentralisation of the capital—Visakhapatnam as executive capital, Amaravati as legislative capital, and Kurnool as judicial capital—has been by far the most disruptive decision of his government

Jagan Mohan Reddy has accused a senior Supreme Court judge of "influencing the sittings of the (Andhra Pradesh) High Court... and instances of how matters important to Telugu Desam Party have been allocated to a few judges". File photo: PTI

As Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy completes one year in office in Andhra Pradesh, a tenure marked by several hits and misses, the most glaring setback has been his inability to push through the plan to shift the state capital from Amaravati to Visakhapatnam.

The decentralisation of the capital—Visakhapatnam as executive capital, Amaravati as legislative capital, and Kurnool as judicial capital—has been by far the most disruptive decision of his government.

However, the three-capital project is now caught in a limbo. The bill, allowing for creation of three capital cities, is stuck in the Legislative Council where the opposition Telugu Desam Party, headed by former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, has the majority.

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In order to overcome this roadblock, the YSR Congress Party government went for the kill: seeking abolition of the Legislative Council. But, it requires approval from the Centre. Since the NDA government is now preoccupied with handling the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not on its priority list. The nod may not come in near future.

Though, for the record, the Centre has made it clear that the decision on location of the capital city is the prerogative of the state government, the AP unit of the BJP has been opposing the idea of shifting the capital from Amaravati to Visakhapatnam. It has joined the other opposition parties in supporting the farmers’ agitation in Amaravati region in this regard.

Legislative hurdles, mass protests

Much before the coronavirus outbreak engaged the national attention, the YSRCP government got the two bills passed in the Legislative Assembly where it has overwhelming majority. The twin bills— one on repealing the AP Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) Act enacted in 2014 to develop Amaravati as the state capital and another on creation of three capitals as part of de-centralised administration, had a smooth sailing in the Assembly in January.

The ruling party has a strength of 153 in the 175-member House but the bills hit a roadblock in the 58-member Legislative Council where the TDP has majority with 28 members as against 9 from the YSRCP while BJP has two, Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) 5 and independents 3. Three seats are vacant.

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The Council referred the bills to a select committee, a move seen as delaying tactic to embarrass the government.

In a tit-for-tat move, the ruling party got a resolution, seeking scrapping of the Legislative Council, adopted by the Assembly on January 27.

It came as no surprise because it fits into a familiar pattern where the Upper House was often used as a battleground to settle political scores. The bicameral legislature was a source of friction between the Congress and TDP in the past too.

Matter of prestige

Shifting of the capital from Amaravati to Visakhapatnam has become a prestige issue for Jagan, who appears to be keen on erasing the political legacy of his bete noir and former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.  Amaravati is the brain child of Naidu, who conceived it as an “ultramodern Greenfield capital” that India had ‘never seen before’.

After alleging “insider trading” in Amaravati project and accusing the Telugu Desam Party leaders of benefiting from it, the YSRCP government came up with the three capital idea on the ground that it would ensure decentralisation of administration and balanced regional development.

In the new model, Amaravati, the grandiose Rs 1 lakh crore project envisaged by Naidu as a riverfront capital in the Krishna-Guntur region, will be reduced to holding a couple of assembly sessions in a year while the entire focus will be on the port city of Visakhapatnam in north coastal region.

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“The decentralisation process began when the Assembly passed the bills. We will follow the Constitution and the due process of law while carrying out the process,” the municipal administration minister B Satyanarayana said.

However, the original plan was to formally shift the capital before ‘Ugadi’, the Telugu New Year, in April.

With the educational institutions set to open from August 3, the government will now have to start the process at least by mid-July. Otherwise, the government employees may not agree to it.

“As of now, the issue of shifting has not come up for discussion because we are preoccupied with the pandemic,” a source in the chief minister’s office said.

Political battleground

Post-bifurcation, AP’s capital woes were driven more by politics than the development imperatives.

It was argued that Chandrababu Naidu had chosen Amaravati to benefit the Kamma community to which he belongs. The business leaders and industrialists from the community, a traditional support base for TDP since its inception, had heavily invested on lands in Amaravati region.

The decision to shift the capital is driven by caste dynamics in the state where the two dominant communities—Reddys and Kammas—compete for power. By reversing the decision on Amaravati, Jagan is actually striking at the financial power of TDP support base.

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The move largely fits into the brand of vindictive politics that his government has come to be identified with. Since taking over the reins on May 30 last year, Jagan has been reversing the key decisions of the previous TDP government, be it the review of the power purchase agreements or reversing the tenders of the Polavaram project.

A string of committees, consultants and ministerial panels on location of capital city have all given similar reports and made exactly those recommendations that the government wanted.

Be it the five-member expert committee, headed by retired IAS officer GN Rao or Boson Consulting Group (BCG) or a cabinet sub-committee, the crux of all the reports was to dilute the Amaravati, conceived by Jagan’s bete noire Chandrababu Naidu.

They have all emphasised decentralising the administration to address the issue of regional imbalances.

Politics apart, having three capital cities in three different regions is bound to create logistical and administrative nightmare. Visakhapatnam in the north coastal region, the proposed executive capital, is 700 km from judicial capital Kurnool, and 400 km from legislative capital Amaravati. The distance between Amaravati and Kurnool distance is over 370 km. The time and costs of travel will be significant.

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The shifting of Amaravati is bound to cause immense material loss and human suffering. A significant amount of work had already taken place before the change of government, making it difficult for the current dispensation to turn its back on the entire project.

The farmers from 29 villages in Amaravati region, who had voluntarily given over 33,000 acres for the capital project, are now up in arms against the government for changing the plan.

While transferring their lands to the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), the farmers had delegated ‘irrevocable general power of attorney’ to the government as part of the agreement.

This means that they no longer enjoy ownership rights over their lands in view of the agreement.

The experts argue that Jagan should have focused on governance, regulatory reforms and improving public infrastructure instead of going for the costly decision of creation of three capital cities.

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