When governments make up their mind on any issue, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the entire universe (read official committees) conspires to make it happen.
This re-phrasing of Paulo Coelho’s famous quote appears apt for the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh as it bulldozes its way to shift Amaravati, the original dream capital of the state, in the name of decentralisation of administration.
A string of committees, consultants and ministerial panels have all given similar reports and made exactly those recommendations that the government wants.
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 and former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu as an ultramodern greenfield capital city that “India has never seen before”. They have all emphasised decentralising the administration to address the issue of regional imbalances.
Surprisingly, even before the expert committee could submit its report, the chief minister chose the floor of the Assembly to disclose that the state could opt for three capital cities instead of one—Visakhapatnam as the executive capital, Amaravati as legislative capital and Kurnool as the judicial capital.
In the midst of intensifying protests by farmers from 29 villages in Guntur district, who had voluntarily given over 33,000 acres of land under land pooling scheme for the proposed river-front capital city, the YSR Congress government has been coming up with bizarre reasons now to justify its three-capital model.
One of the reasons being cited is the ‘vulnerability’ of Amaravati region to flooding.
This is strange because the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had examined the issue in great detail before granting clearance for the project in November, 2017.
“It is clear from Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report that the capital city area does not fall in a flood plain. There was no flooding in the area falling within the proposed capital city,” the NGT said in its verdict.
“Although the applicants (petitioners) have alleged that the capital city is prone to flooding from the river Krishna on the basis of certain documents, the fact is that the areas mentioned in these documents do not fall within the proposed capital city’s boundary. The reference to Guntur made in these documents is with regard to the district as a whole and not to any particular area falling within the proposed capital city. Apart from it, there is no flooding in the capital city area from river Krishna because of the existing embankments/bunds. Therefore, the proposed city is not located within the flood plain,” the order said.
Despite the final word coming from NGT, the YSRCP government’s attempt to dub Amaravati area as flood-prone indicates that it wants to chuck the project on environmental grounds.
“There are studies to show that Amaravati is prone to floods. There is an IIT Madras study also. Moreover, the cost of construction will be huge in Amaravati compared to other places. It is going to be a massive burden on the state exchequer,” state municipal administration minister B Satyanarayana said.
Role of IIT (M)
The Centre for Urbanisation, Buildings and Environment (CUBE) of IIT-Madras was one of the consulting agencies for the Amaravati project, working in association with the Andhra Pradesh government in the past on assessing the flood situation and formulating appropriate flood mitigation measures.
In fact, the state government had finalised an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for the identified flood mitigation works in the Amaravati city region, in consultation with agencies like IIT (M).
“Since these plans were in tune with the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and other regulatory compliance requirements, the NGT had given the go-ahead and appreciated the meticulous and time-bound plans for mitigating environmental and social risks associated with the project,” a former official of the CRDA (Capital Region Development Authority) said.
Expressing satisfaction over the environmental plan submitted by the government, the NGT had said in its order: “It is amply clear that the State of Andhra Pradesh has been taking appropriate and adequate steps in the nature of preventive and precautionary measures for sustainable development while bringing up the project of its capital city.”
“The execution of the present project, if carried out with due care, precaution and in consonance with the conditions imposed for environmental and ecological protection, would not be prejudicial to environment and ecology,” the Tribunal concluded.
Flood mitigation measures
The flood mitigation measures recommended for the capital city were designed considering the estimated 100-year peak flood discharge.
They included widening and deepening of two main canals in the region— Kondaveeti Vagu and Pala Vagu—, construction of a gravity canal and three reservoirs at Neerukonda, Krishnayapalen and Sakhamuru.
According to the EIA report, a round-the-clock online-based flood and water quality monitoring system was to be implemented for the entire catchment area to prevent flooding of the capital city.
The monitoring system will involve installation of weather monitoring stations, level transmitters and water quality sensors at major locations along the canals, reservoirs and pump sumps. All the individual systems are interconnected and relayed to the master control room, proposed to be set up at Undavalli Pumping Station, through optical fibre cable network and wireless communication system.
Water levels and quality will be measured along the canal, reservoirs and pump sumps while the discharge will be measured at reservoirs. The flood management works system for the entire capital city will be monitored and operated from a master control room at Undavalli.
“Several steps have been taken by the government so as to have minimum impact on the environment which would balance between the development of the capital city and adequate protection to the environment,” the NGT said.
“Even during the unprecedented floods in 1853 and thereafter in 2009, there was no flooding in the capital city area so as to establish that it lies in flood plains. An area to be called flood plain has to be subjected to recurring floods, as stated by the applicant himself. Any occasional flood in an area cannot be termed as an area having flood plains,” the tribunal said, while rejecting the contention of the petitioners that the capital region comes under flood plain.
The NGT gave clearance for the project, subject to certain conditions. They included: 1) No alteration of the river or natural storm water morphology, flow pattern and location by way of straightening shall be permitted, 2) The state government should prepare a comprehensive city specific action plan to mitigate impact of climate change with a view to achieve carbon neutrality, 3) The 251 acres of forest land should be preserved as green lungs of the city and not to be diverted for non-forestry uses and 4) All the hills and hillocks in the catchment area of Kondaveeti Vagu, its tributaries and other storm water drains/channels should be treated with intensive soil and water conservation measures.
“There is a regular bund constructed which protects the area from the rigours of flood of the rivers. Once the matter is examined holistically, it would be evident that protection to the flood plain is provided by construction of bund as well as by raising height of some proposed buildings to ensure that the floods do not cause any serious adverse impact on the person and property and to the entire city at large,” it said.
On the allegations that the land for the capital was forcibly taken away from farmers, the NGT said, “Having given our thoughtful consideration to the question of land pooling scheme of farmers for the proposed capital city area, we are of the considered view that the said scheme is neither arbitrary nor against the interest of the farmers.”
At what cost?
The shifting of Amaravati is bound to cause immense material loss and human suffering. A significant amount of work has already taken place, making it difficult for the current dispensation to turn its back on the entire project.
Since the new state did not have money for land acquisition, the then chief minister came up with the land pooling scheme, under which nearly 29,000 farmers came forward to give 34,010 acres after making them partners in development. The farmers got 1,200 to 1,500 square yards of developed plots per acre given for pooling.
Besides, the farmers were also extended several benefits including payment of rent ranging from ₹30,000 to ₹50,000 per acre per annum for 10 years, with a 10 percent hike every year. Debt waivers, free education, health camps, subsidised canteens and other benefits were also extended to the landowners.
Developed plots have already been allocated to the majority of farmers in the capital area, although not necessarily on their farms. According to officials, 65,235 returnable plots of which were 37,531 residential and 26,038 commercial were allotted to landowners.
Now, even if Jagan wants to go back, it would be nearly impossible to undo the elaborate process and return the lands to the farmers. The lands have turned fallow as cultivation stopped since 2015, following the commencement of construction work.