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Amaravati: The Making of a Disaster Capital in Andhra Pradesh?

Dag Kolstø ( is an independent researcher.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh has procured land for the construction of the state’s new capital city, Amaravati, through a land pooling scheme that it presented as a viable alternative to the forceful takeover of private land through the use of eminent domain. Drawing on five months of ethnographic fieldwork, the strategies of coercion and co-optation employed by the state government to persuade local landowners to part with their land and the socio-economic effects of dispossession and unemployment in Dalit communities are investigated. The urbanisation scheme can be characterised as a disaster in the making, with civil society unable to resist as the state government follows a high-modernist ideology of simplifying nature and society, implementing its plans through coercive power.

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer for helpful comments and recommendations to an earlier version of this paper.

In December 2014, the Government of Andhra Pradesh (GoAP) declared its intention to procure 33,000 acres of privately-owned agricultural land located in the region between Vijayawada and Guntur. To that end, it initiated a land pooling scheme (LPS), in which landowners could participate “as partners in development” in the creation of the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh: Amaravati, “the People’s Capital.”

While the GoAP has largely succeeded in acquiring the desired land, in three villages in particular, there was substantial dissent from farmers who refused to take part in the LPS. In one of these villages, Penumaka, only 50% of the land has been procured at the time of writing.1 From August to December 2016, I stayed in Penumaka and conducted ethnographic fieldwork in order to understand not just the dynamics of the negotiations between the farmers and the state government, but also the socio-economic effects of the megacity project among landless workers. From my research, I describe two highly disturbing dynamics which have evolved as a result of the LPS. The first concerns the strategies of co-optation and coercion employed by the state government to acquire land. While the LPS has been framed by the GoAP as a democratic alternative to the use of eminent domain under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (Land Acquisition [LAA]), I show how the authorities employed both soft and hard power to get landowners to part “voluntarily” with their land.

The second point concerns the marginalisation of the landless working class in the region. In pooling the desired land for the new capital city, the state government has continuously disregarded the interests of the (primarily Dalit) landless communities. For instance, the LPS offers owners of patta land larger reconstituted plots as compensation compared to owners of assigned land. Moreover, even after surrendering their land, many assignees have not received the monetary compensation stipulated in the LPS rules. At the same time, given the prohibition on cultivating plots that have been pooled, members of the agricultural working class are increasingly dispossessed of their livelihood: farm work.

Drawing on James Scott’s seminal work, Seeing Like a State, I argue that the Amaravati city project fits the criteria of a “full-fledged disaster.” According to Scott (1998), a combination of four elements is required for such a situation to occur: simplifications of nature and society from above, a high-modernist state ideology, a willingness to use coercive power, and the inability of civil society to resist the scheme. In the following sections, I elaborate on how the capital city project in Andhra Pradesh involves all these elements and, therefore, Amaravati can be characterised as a disaster capital in the making.

Simplifications of High-modernist Urbanisation

The story of Amaravati began when Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated to create the state of Telangana. The struggle for statehood in Telangana dates back to 1969. In 2014, the Congress-led central government agreed to divide the state in two (Benbabaali 2016). Andhra Pradesh thereby lost its capital city, Hyderabad; a tremendous loss for the population of residual Andhra Pradesh, economically and emotionally. As Madala Srinavas, President of the Amaravati Land Pooling Farmers Federation of the Capital, put it in an interview:

The capital has become a necessity, not by design, but by default. The state, against the wishes of the majority of the people, was divided into two, with the capital city [going to] the so-called “new” state of Telangana and the original state of Andhra Pradesh left with no capital. It has hurt the sentiments, the feelings, [and] the pride of each and every citizen of the state of Andhra Pradesh.2

Landowners belonging to the prosperous farmer–capitalist class in residual Andhra Pradesh opposed the decision to bifurcate the state because many of them had invested profits from agriculture in businesses in Hyderabad (Upadhya 1988). The investments of these affluent farmers—referred to by Parthasarathy (2015) as “provincial capital”—proved very influential in developing the city into a centre for information technology (IT) business (2015). Much of this capital from coastal Andhra Pradesh had come from members of the Kamma caste, a dominant landowning caste that has been consolidating economic and political power since the founding of the Kamma-dominated Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1983. Under the TDP, the northern outskirts of Hyderabad were developed in the 1990s into HITEC (Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy) City. This development occurred near the residential area of the Kamma community and brought about an appreciation in local real estate values (Benbabaali 2018: 11).

When the TDP formed a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, the state was already divided. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, of the Kamma caste, attempted to frame the discourse in a way that would transform the crisis into an opportunity. He appealed primarily to the wealthy business class from coastal Andhra Pradesh, seeking to convert their hurt pride into a renewed sense of regionalism by proposing to build a bigger and better city than Hyderabad in the residual state of Andhra Pradesh (Upadhya 2017: 187). Speculation began immediately about where the state government would construct this new capital city. In September 2014, the announcement was made that it would be located in the Vijayawada–Guntur area, stretching over 14 villages along the River Krishna. As was the case with HITEC City in Hyderabad, the location of the proposed capital benefited the local Kamma community as most of the agricultural land there is owned by Kamma families (Vakulabharanam and Prasad 2017: 72).

The Sivaramakrishnan Committee, an expert committee constituted by the central government as a part of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014 to study alternatives for the construction of the new capital city, had submitted its report just days before. They advised against the construction of a single greenfield city and specifically against locating it in the Guntur–Vijayawada area because of the fertile farmlands there (Sivaramakrishnan et al 2014). Instead, the committee proposed a decentralised capital with administrative centres in various districts throughout Andhra Pradesh. These suggestions appeared to be fully ruled out by the September 2014 declaration. The state government presented the contradiction in Orwellian language: “the choice of the State Government is to go for de-centralized development with centralized administration” (CRDA 2016: 8). In December 2014, it was announced that the capital city would be built over 29 villages (of which 25 were populated) in Thullur, Tadepalli, and Mangalagiri mandals, stretching over 217 square kilometres.

The Land Pooling Scheme

The GoAP could not procure the land required for the city simply by invoking eminent domain because rising opposition to state government practices of land grabbing all over India had led the central government to adopt a new law regulating land acquisition in 2013. This new LAA made it very difficult for the GoAP to acquire the desired land in the Vijayawada–Guntur area. The law requires consent from 70% of the local population even for public purpose projects and it cannot be invoked to take any multi-crop land.

To acquire land without using the LAA, the state government introduced the LPS, which would allow landowners to voluntarily surrender their land for the purpose of developing the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh. In return, they would receive reconstituted residential and commercial plots within the capital region. The size of the reconstituted plots would depend on whether the surrendered land was classified as dry or wet. Lands upon which only one or two crops could be cultivated were termed drylands and multi-cropped agricultural land with the water table 15 feet under the ground was referred to as wetland (locally known as jareebu land). For one acre of dryland, landowners would receive 1,000 square yards of residential plots and 200 square yards of commercial plots. For one acre of wetland, landowners would receive 1,000 square yards of residential plots and 450 square yards of commercial plots. In addition, there would be an annual compensation, for 10 years, of ₹ 30,000 for one acre of dryland and ₹ 50,000 for one acre of wetland.

Officially, the land pooling process went smoothly without much resistance from farmers or from landless agricultural workers in the region. The state government boasted that it had procured almost all the desired land for the construction of the capital city. It seems puzzling that so many landowners would surrender their agricultural land voluntarily for a megacity project since farmers in Andhra Pradesh are seen as being very attached to their land. It is a common saying among farmers that the land is like their mother (“Kannathali bhumi okkatey”). Yet, it seems that they were somehow persuaded. The official rhetoric from government officials is that the farmers wanted to leave agriculture because it is no longer viable.3 While this may have been a decisive factor for some farmers, I hold that it is far more important to understand the coercive conditions under which landowners agreed to surrender their land for the development of Amaravati.

Coercive Power

Under the LPS, the state government employed a wide range of strategies aimed at persuading and/or intimidating landowners to part with their land. The phrase “sama, dhana, bheda, dandopaya” (requesting, pleading, warning, forcing) sums up the strategies one can use for persuasion. The GoAP employed all of these strategies which to convince landowners to part with their land under the LPS. The strategies of requesting and pleading represented what Ramachandraiah (2016) calls a “regime of co-option.” By proposing to make landowners partners in the development of the capital city, the government managed to engage them in a process of negotiation over the terms and conditions of the LPS. Before the official announcement, details regarding the size of the reconstituted plots and the annual compensation amount were apparently floated to gauge support. Politicians as well as real estate developers loyal to the government circulated speculative projections about how land prices would rise with the development of the capital city and told landowners that the reconstituted plots they would receive for their agricultural plots would be worth more than their original land (Ramachandraiah 2016: 71). Although there was some immediate interest from farmers, particularly from the absentee landowners of dry land, there did not seem to be much support for the LPS originally. Even in the centre of the Kamma heartland, Thullur mandal, there was opposition to the scheme. A resident of Lingayapalem told me that the village president, a TDP member, arranged a gram sabha (village meeting) where landowners were asked who among them were willing to give their land under the LPS for the construction of the capital city. When it emerged that most of them were opposed, the village president had allegedly told them angrily, “Those who don’t want to give their land can go!”4

The third strategy, of warning, involved government officials threatening landowners that the GoAP would acquire their land with the right to eminent domain under the LAA if they did not surrender it voluntarily under the LPS. In the two months leading up to 28 February 2015, when the LPS was to end, the warning that the government would acquire the land by force was relentlessly propagated: it was broadcasted by media outlets, relayed by loudspeakers in the villages, and reiterated by local- and state-level politicians loyal to the government. Two ministers in the TDP—P Narayana, who is the minister for municipal administration and urban development, and Prathipati Pulla Rao, the former minister for agriculture—travelled the capital region telling reluctant landowners about the benefits of the LPS as well as the consequences if they refused to comply (Ramachandraiah 2016: 73).

The state government’s legal power to acquire private land for infrastructure development under the right of eminent domain was being negotiated at the central level at the time. On 31 December 2014—one day before the LPS was enacted—the newly elected central government under the BJP promulgated an ordinance to amend the LAA from 2013. The ordinance entailed exemptions for certain development projects and would have made it possible to acquire even multi-crop land in the capital region of Andhra Pradesh if it had not been rejected by the Rajya Sabha and finally withdrawn by the central government in August 2015. However, in the interval between December 2014 and August 2015, the negotiations over the LAA caused great confusion and doubt in the minds of many landowners in the capital region who were confronted with having to decide whether or not to participate in the LPS.

I spoke with a researcher called Rajaiah, who was originally from one of the villages in the capital region.5 His family, who still lived in the region, owned two acres of agricultural land that they had surrendered to the government under the LPS. Rajaiah was familiar with the new LAA from 2013, but he was also aware of the central government’s promulgation of an ordinance to amend it. He lamented the situation after his family surrendered the land: “We have lost everything. It is like we are dead.” But, he nonetheless defended the decision because, as far as he could see, the government could have legally acquired the land at any point between 31 December 2014 and 31 August 2015. If the government had acquired their land through the LAA, Rajaiah’s family would have received a compensation package worth less than the value of the land since the land had been registered with a lower price in order to reduce stamp duty taxes, a common practice discussed by Ramachandraiah and Venkateswarlu (2014: 36). These were the considerations of Rajaiah and his family, who can be said to be fairly well-informed about the legal dynamics of land acquisition in the country. Most farmers, however, lacked the education required to be able to grasp the implications of the LPS and evaluate the credibility of the claims made by the state government regarding its legal power to acquire privately owned agricultural land under the LAA, 2013. In addition, they were given short time frames for choosing whether to participate in the LPS and the rules of the scheme were not even published in the vernacular language, that is, Telugu. Many farmers I spoke to referred to this time under the LPS as “mental torture,” which they saw as a strategy by the state government aimed at pressurising them. Many probably thought that the torture would end when the 28 February 2015 deadline expired. But, after that date, another deadline was given, and then another, and yet another one. In fact, the LPS was still in force when I was in the region in December 2016.

An Atmosphere of Fear

The fourth strategy, of forcing, involved the deployment of security forces to the capital region during the period of the LPS. This created an atmosphere of fear, intensifying the pressure on farmers to part with their land. The background to this police presence is important. On 28 December 2014—two days before the announcement of the LPS—banana plantations in six riverbank villages were burnt. Although no information was released from the police investigation, it seemed that the culprits started in the night in Lingayapalem and burned heaps of bamboo sticks used by farmers to stabilise the banana trees. It is likely that they moved southward because similar incidents took place in Uddandarayunipalem, Malkapuram, Venkatapalem, Penumaka, and Undavalli in the same night. Local residents apparently glimpsed the perpetrators before they escaped in the darkness of the verdant plantations.6 The next day, eight police battalions (approximately 10,000 police personnel) were stationed in the villages and Section 144, which prohibits the freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate, was enforced on the entire capital region (Ramachandraiah 2016: 72). For a period, special police forces with military uniforms, backpacks, and guns could be heard marching in the streets at night. As described by one farmer from Thullur,

After the burning incidents, armed forces came to our villages. We had never seen that kind of police in khaki shirts in our villages. Occasionally, we had seen police in Thullur mandal, but after the burning incidents we saw so many of them, on foot, guns in their hands. It created fear among the people. All the farmers were afraid.7

On 29 December, the police started arresting dissidents who had been outspoken against the LPS on suspicion of arson. According to Ramachandraiah (2016: 72), those who belonged to the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), the main opposition party, or to Dalit communities were “treated roughly.” Satish, a Dalit supporter of the YSRCP, told me that he had been arrested on the day after the arson. He had spent several days in custody along with 14 other people, during which time he had been interrogated and verbally abused by the police. Satish told me that officers from the Intelligence Bureau had put a gun to his head and threatened to shoot him if he did not confess to burning the banana plantations on 28 December. They also took him to a rooftop and threatened to throw him over the edge if he did not confess. Such stories circulated in the region, reminding people about the powers of the government. The arson incidents on 28 December 2014 created fear and confusion among the local population. The state government used this as a pretext to introduce anti-democratic measures and suppress opposition to the LPS (Klein 2007).

Grabbing of Assigned Land

Assigned land refers to agricultural lands allocated by the GoAP since the 1950s to poor landless households in order to provide them with the means to escape the cycle of poverty. Since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, state governments have increasingly been acquiring assigned land for development projects, a tendency which Ramachandraiah and Srinavasan (2011) call “social justice in reverse gear.” Under LPS rules, owners of assigned land are identified as a separate category from owners of normally registered land, which is known as patta land. Although assignees are offered the same amount of money in annual compensation for land surrendered under the scheme, they are to be given smaller reconstituted plots in the capital region than those owning patta lands. Civil society organisations like the Dalit Bahujan Front protested this aspect of the LPS, arguing that it constitutes discrimination against Dalits.8 Nonetheless, when the LPS was introduced, most owners of assigned land viewed the scheme positively and surrendered their land. But, it soon became apparent that landownership among the assignees was unclear since the land had been allocated to households long ago and had passed through several generations, often without proper registration of the new landowners. Because of the confusion regarding landownership and the opportunities that arose as a result of the LPS, the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (apCRDA)—the government agency responsible for the development of the capital region—initiated a social enumeration survey in order to identify the rightful deed-holders. Meanwhile, assignees were not compensated for the land which they had surrendered. The situation played out variously in the villages of the capital region, which I illustrate with ethnographic examples from three villages.

In Uddandarayunipalem, members of the Madiga caste cultivate an area of about 280 acres of very fertile land, located between the river Krishna and the river bund on the other side. When I asked the assignees their opinions about the LPS, they did not seem to understand that they actually owned the land that they were farming. I asked a Madiga farmer whether he had given his land to the government under the LPS, and he responded by saying “no, they have not taken it.” Although he had documentation to prove that he owned the land, he nonetheless seemed to think that the government was the rightful owner because at the Registrar’s Office, the land was not marked with his name but with the label “government land.” I asked him who had told him that the land belonged to the government, and he said immediately, “Chandrababu Naidu.”9 He added that local government officials also said that the land belonged to the state. They had said that assignees had a choice: to give the land to the government under the LPS and receive the compensation package guaranteed under this scheme or let the government acquire it from them without giving compensation.

The legal status of the assigned lands in Uddandarayunipalem was ambiguous during the social enumeration survey. Although the government had declared that the land would be used for construction, the assignees were allowed to cultivate it for the time being. Elsewhere, however, assignees were not allowed to farm the land which the government had earmarked for the construction of the new capital city. Assigned lands on the island of Chinnalanka—which is located on the river Krishna—lay fallow when I visited in November 2016. I had come with representatives from the Borupalem Harijana Society, an organisation of Madiga farmers who had been assigned lands on the island. The organisation dealt with practical issues (electricity, water, transport, etc) related to the cultivation of these plots. We were standing under the shade of a tree, looking over the land, when the president of the society told me that the government had taken the land two years ago when the LPS was announced. The assignees had been pleased, he said, because they hoped that they would get the annual compensation package of ₹ 50,000, as well as new plots in the capital city, as per LPS rules. However, they had not received compensation or plots because the government was still conducting the survey to identify those eligible for compensation packages. Twice in the last two years, the government had presented results from the survey, but people had come forward with objections regarding mistakes in identifying names and the extent of their lands.

While we were talking, a group of 24 farmers arrived along with five officials from the CRDA and the VRO (village revenue officer) from Thullur. They claimed to represent another assigned land society for the Other Backward Class (OBC) community in Rayapudi. The members of the Rayapudi Society had come to deliver a complaint about the CRDA’s findings in the land survey, because they claimed that they owned 34 acres altogether, whereas according to the CRDA report, they owned only between 4 and 5 acres on the island. They came to where we were standing and proclaimed that they owned the land which the members of the Borupalem Harijana Society had just told me that they owned. The president of the society responded so loudly that everybody could hear it: “Are you coming here to reduce our land in favour of the Rayapudi organisation?” No one said anything in response. The VRO turned to an official from the CRDA and asked, “What do we do now, sir?” A young man had wandered across the field and now stood on the other side. One of the representatives from the Rayapudi Society announced to the government officials that his organisation owned the land between where they stood and where the young man was standing. The president of the Borupalem Harijana Society disagreed, saying that he had been cultivating that land for 50 years. He turned to the representative from Rayapudi Society and said, “You are wrong [thappu chupistunnaru]. The government will beat you or we will beat you.” The situation was characterised by confusion and frustration on the part of the farmers as well as the state officials and did not seem to be leading anywhere. To me, the people who claimed to be from the Rayapudi Society did not appear genuine: they did not show any documentation for the land that they declared as their own and they did not even know who was cultivating the land adjacent to their proclaimed properties. I suspect they were opportunistic fraudsters seeking to take advantage of the confusion in order to obtain the LPS compensation package.

In Penumaka, two large tracts of lands on the periphery of the village had been divided into smaller plots and assigned decades ago to the Lambadi community, a Scheduled Tribe (ST). They had been cultivating onion shoots (ulinatlu) on these plots until about 15 years ago, when farmers began buying onion shoots from neighbouring Prakasam district instead. When the capital city project was announced in December 2014, many assignees sent in consent forms to the CRDA to announce their interest in participating in the scheme. But very few have received any compensation since. In addition, assignees in Penumaka who sent consent forms to the CRDA cannot receive the landless agricultural workers’ pension of ₹ 2,500 stipulated in the LPS either, because they are registered with land deeds. They are trapped in a legal limbo, punished for owning assigned lands.

One example from a household that owned both assigned lands and normally registered patta land can illustrate this point. Many decades ago, the state government assigned one acre of agricultural land to the household, which had nine children. When the original deed-holder died, the land was divided into nine parts and shared among the siblings. When the LPS was announced, all but two of them agreed to send in a consent form to the CRDA in order to participate in the government scheme. Since two of the siblings refused to sign the form, they did not get the compensation. One of the nine siblings, Yellama, also owned 0.30 acres of normally registered patta land. Yellama had surrendered her patta land under the LPS, but did not receive compensation for that land either. When the CRDA found that she owned assigned land as well as the patta land, they offered to pay her ₹ 14,500 per year, which is the proportional amount of money according to the size of her patta plot. It is not clear why the CRDA offered to pay her this amount instead of the full compensation, since it is not the policy under the LPS rules. She told me that she had not received any clarification from the CRDA as to why she would get less compensation than other people who participated in the LPS. When she asked if she could withdraw the land from the agreement she was told to wait until the situation had calmed down. At the end of our interview she said: “We have nothing. We are dependent on agricultural work.” I asked the deputy collector for the CRDA in Penumaka why the state government did not pay the annual compensation to assignees according to the LPS rules and he told me the reason was that the assigned land had been sold to affluent upper-caste people in violation of the Andhra Pradesh Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act, 1977. However, he assured me that according to the same act, assignees are eligible for compensation and that the government is required to pay them.10 In February 2016, the state government passed a government order (GO No 41), according to which assignees will be compensated on par with patta landowners.11

Unemployment among Landless Labour Class

The landless labour class constitutes the great majority of the population in the capital region. It is made up predominantly of members of backward and Dalit castes living on the periphery of the villages, an area otherwise called the palli. The landowning class consists of upper-caste people living in the village centre, which is known as the uru (Still 2014). Landless labourers depend on daily wages (kuli) from agricultural work—sowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, etc—provided by landowning farmers. Economic conditions have worsened drastically for the labour class after the initiation of the LPS, because with farmers surrendering their land to the state government, agricultural work available in the region has diminished proportionally. The CRDA acknowledges that the urbanisation project is in effect dispossessing this class of their livelihood and has included a pension for landless poor in the LPS. This pension consists of a monthly payment of ₹ 2,500 for the duration of 10 years to households that do not own any agricultural land and are registered as living below the poverty line (annual income under ₹ 60,000). However, this monthly pension, which is paid to each household and not to each worker, is substantially less than what agricultural workers in the capital region used to earn before the LPS. It is wholly inadequate to sustain a household for a month. Daily wages varied depending on the village, but according to Vakulabharanam and Prasad (2017: 72), female workers earn ₹ 8,000 and male workers earn ₹ 12,000 per month in general. So, a household where both the mother and father worked daily in the fields used to earn an average of ₹ 20,000 a month, according to the above-cited estimates. Moreover, some of the children in a household usually worked in the fields after coming of age.

Landless villagers lamented their financial situation after the implementation of the LPS, stressing that the agricultural pensions that the government had provided since mid-June 2015 were insufficient to meet their daily needs. Many agricultural workers told me that the monthly sum of ₹ 2,500 is only enough for about 10 days; then additional work must be found to be able to feed the family for the rest of the month. Some found petty jobs in the village or in mercantile activities in nearby towns and cities like Guntur and Vijayawada. Many travelled long distances to find agricultural work outside the region and many more sat idle at home. The agricultural pension is usually transferred to the bank account of the male head of the family, who often squanders the money on liquor. In Penumaka, I observed greater alcohol abuse among the men in the palli after the pension had been paid by the CRDA. Alcoholism was already a problem among the male population in the landless working class, but I argue that it was exacerbated by
increased unemployment and that the agricultural pension contributed to the problem because it was provided for free, without the associated dignity of work.

Skill Development Programmes

According to the government document Vision 2029, which was published in 2016, the GoAP is committed to “transforming excess agricultural labour force into productive and skilled manufacturing labour force” (GoAP 2016: 26). In the capital region, this transformation is to be facilitated through skill development programmes, which according to the LPS, are to “provide training with stipend to enhance the skills of cultivating tenants, agricultural labourers and other needy persons.” These programmes are aimed primarily at educated youth, but there is also training available for unskilled labourers, intended as preparation for specific types of work (IT, engineering, handicrafts, sewing, etc). However, among residents of the capital region who had participated in the skill development programmes, including educated young people, there was considerable discontent. I spoke to a young man with an engineering degree who, along with 150 other students, had completed a six-month skill development programme. He said that the programme had cost the government ₹ 1.5 crore, but at the end of the programme, only two of the students got employment while 148 were left with nothing. The students staged a dharna (sit-in) at the CRDA office, shouting, “the CRDA spent ₹ 1.5 crore and provided jobs for two people.” This calls to mind what Cross (2009: 376) refers to as the “blighted hope” inherent in the contrast between imagined and actual working conditions on a factory floor in a special economic zone in Andhra Pradesh.

Development without Labour

The state government claims that the urbanisation project will bring employment opportunities to the landless labour class through increased construction in the region. For example, according to the LPS rules, it is the responsibility of the government to “engage tractors belonging to residents for construction activity.” But while there were indeed many tractors bringing large amounts of sand and other construction materials into the capital region during the time I was there in 2016, very few of them were local. In fact, local tractors were left unengaged. I spoke with a tractor driver in Penumaka who told me that he used to drive five or six times a day before the project was announced, but now he got far fewer jobs. He showed me a logbook of his tractor jobs: nothing had been entered during the past month. Similarly, many landless workers in the villages surrounding the Temporary Secretariat had hoped that they would find employment in the construction of this complex. But, when I visited the site in November 2016 while the assembly building was still under construction, I found that many, if not most, of the workers were not from the capital region. Many were from Bihar, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh; some were from other parts of Andhra Pradesh; only a few were from nearby villages in the region. Local workers told me that in order to get a construction job there, one had to be young, slim, and fair-skinned.

With less and less work available to landless workers, their already precarious economic situation is becoming increasingly desperate, especially in villages where almost all landowners have surrendered their land under the LPS. In Thullur, I met a group of five women of various ages, sitting idle outside their homes in the middle of the day. They told me that they used to earn ₹ 120 every day doing farm work in the village. But now they had to travel outside the capital region to a village called Tadikonda, where they stayed a week at a time picking cotton. However, that work was dependent on rainfall and since there had been no rain recently, there was no work. Their husbands were able to find employment only sporadically in construction jobs and the LPS pension was not enough to sustain the household. They were upset about having nothing to do. One of the women said, “panni unthey ebandhi kaadu, leykapothey ebandhi” (if there is work it is not a problem, but if there is no work it is a problem).

Lack of Dissent

Despite the diminishing work available and the pooling of assigned land without the annual compensation being paid, there was very little resistance among landless agricultural labourers towards the Amaravati city project. In trying to explain this lack of dissent, I highlight two strategies of co-optation directed at this sector of society. The first strategy involved proposing to give a monthly pension of ₹ 2,500 to landless agricultural workers. By doing so, the government engaged in a form of negotiation with this class. When political parties and civil society organisations advocated for higher sums, the government responded positively to their demands: yes, they would consider the matter, but it would take time. Still (2011: 317) notes that Dalits often have an “optimistic view of the state” because they are interested in the benefits that the state might provide. Thus, when Dalits in the proposed capital region were offered ₹ 2,500 a month, many saw it as better than nothing and feared that if they voiced opposition, they would not receive this pension.

The second strategy of co-optation relates to the marketing of the world-class city. Although the master plans developed by a consortium from Singapore did not include many jobs for unskilled workers, landless agriculturalists believed that the development of infrastructure and the influx of private companies would bring direct and indirect economic opportunities to the region. A landless woman from Penumaka told me:

It is difficult now (ippudu bagaleydu), because there is no work. But once the development starts, the government will bring in people from other countries who will come and make new companies here, which will bring employment for us.

Many people with whom I spoke thought that although they might not benefit from this urbanisation, at least the educated youth would. It was this “illusion of development” that had convinced many landless people (Hardt and Negri 2000: 282). An old Dalit man in Penumaka endorsed the project with these words: “My country must get rich! For my grandchildren. I may not be there, but my grandchildren shall enjoy the wealth that awaits them. […] We have to look to development.” This vision of development—seen as entailing modern infrastructure and employment opportunities—was reiterated by all those who supported the capital city project. I believe that aspirations for development became something of an attachment, which produced the paradoxical response among agricultural workers: they endorsed the capital city project even though they recognised that there was now less work available to them because of the state governments’ urbanisation plans (Moore 2011).

Worlding Practices and Absence of Counter-worlding

In Worlding Cities, Roy and Ong (2011: 11) argue that government efforts to redesign urban environments in Asia can be seen as worlding practices that “instantiate some vision of the world in formation.” This is an ongoing, aspirational, and speculative process that involves inter-city comparisons, referencing, and modelling. Asian governments often look to other Asian cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong rather than Western cities as models for urban development. They also draw on concepts such as world class and sustainability, fusing them with ideas about entrepreneurialism and modernism. In constructing imaginings of the Amaravati megacity project, the GoAP employed value-laden concepts such as world class, sustainable, and greenfield in order to arouse aspirations in the people of Andhra Pradesh of being global, competitive, and above all, successful. This is a neo-liberal logic that stems from the discourse of individualism, market competition, deregulation, and privatisation dominant in the United States and Europe since the 1980s.

In India, this discourse gained prominence with the liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s and has been cultivated by state governments like the TDP-led GoAP. The image of neo-liberal success, as promoted in movies, advertisements, in the press, and in televised news, has obtained a firm hold on the minds of many Indians. When the GoAP markets the capital city project today, it is doing so in an “ideoscape,” deeply embedded with seductive symbols and ideas of prosperity (Appadurai 1990). Ong (2011: 11) holds that while megacity projects such as Amaravati may be seen as worlding practices from above, there could also be practices of counter-worlding from below, in which people express alternative visions and ideologies. In the case of the Amaravati city project, however, there has been very little resistance in terms of affected people expressing alternative, counter-worlding visions. Any dissent has been largely politicised within the familiar sphere of caste-dominated party politics and not even the opposition parties have presented alternative visions. Politicians from the opposition parties with whom I spoke often said, “We are not against the capital,” or “We are not against development,” indicating that they endorse the idea, but have certain reservations regarding how it has been implemented. Even more notable is the absence of resistance from landless agriculturalists, who constitute the large majority of the population in the proposed capital region. This sector of the population does not stand to benefit from the LPS; rather, they lose their livelihood as a result of it. Nonetheless, they have not opposed the project in any sustained manner and remain optimistic about their future prospects in the capital city.

On the one hand, I assume that many were deterred from expressing opposition because of the repressive strategies used by the state government in the early stages of the LPS. As one Dalit in Penumaka put it, “No one can oppose the government because it has all economic power and all police.” On the other hand, many landless agricultural workers were persuaded by the sophisticated marketing of the new capital city. The master plans featured seductive computer-generated images, projecting the city with futuristic infrastructure, skyscrapers, and a riverfront on the Krishna. Together with unrealistic projections of job creation, these images were circulated continuously by electronic and print media (Ramachandraiah 2015, 2016). These images and cues worked like affective coding, through which the state government managed to instil the neo-liberal logic of the LPS into the minds of landless people as well as landowners. In Foucauldian terms, it might be argued that, through processes of subjectification, landowners and landless people alike were persuaded to accept the state discourse of development. Moreover, by more repressive mechanisms, like the deployment of thousands of police personnel as well as officers from the Intelligence Bureau, the government succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear that deterred people from protesting or organising against the capital city project.

In Conclusion

James Scott (1998: 131) writes about high-modernist aspirations behind the planned city of Chandigarh, which is the state capital for Haryana and Punjab: “The promotion of modern technology in a new capital that would dramatise the values that the new Indian elite wished to convey.” Large curves were substituted with rectilinear axes and crowded bazaars were replaced with huge squares. The result of the planned urbanisation, according to Scott, was the upshot of an unplanned city at the periphery, which contradicted the order at the centre. While Chandigarh may have expressed values of high-modernist socialism, Amaravati represents the mega-urbanist ideology of neo-liberalism. It fits the four criteria of Scott’s conception of a “full-fledged disaster.” The urbanisation scheme is dramatically simplifying a landscape which is famed for its fertile farmland into a planned city. Throughout the process, the state government has employed coercive measures, like deploying large amounts of police forces and arresting dissidents, in order to suppress resistance to its urbanisation scheme. Confronted with these measures, a prostrate civil society has not shown any capacity to resist the project.

The result of what Vakulabharanam and Prasad (2017: 75) call a “thesis with a weak antithesis” is that the state government is progressing with a high degree of hubris in shifting wealth from the marginalised majority to the prosperous elite. What is required is a new vision of development that can break with the discursive logic of neo-liberalism; one that can
protect the commons in order for all the people to flourish.


1 According to the deputy collector for the CRDA in Penumaka, Radakrishnayya, interviewed on 8 September 2016.

2 The author’s interviews with members of the Amaravati Land Pooling Farmers Federation of the Capital, 27 November 2016.

3 Based on an interview with Prabhakara Reddy, former director of IT & Social Development for the CRDA, 18 November 2016, and interviews with members of the Amaravati Land Pooling Farmers Federation of the Capital, 27 November 2016.

4 The author’s conversation with resident of Lingayapalem, 25 November 2016.

5 All interlocutors referred to here with only one name have been given pseudonyms.

6 These conclusions are based on an interaction with residents of Lingayapalem and conversations with Chirugapati Ramachandraiah, 26 November 2016.

7 The author’s interview with farmer from Thullur, 6 November 2016.

8 Based on an interview with Bhagya Rao, National Secretary for Dalit Bahujan Front, 13 November 2016.

9 Chandrababu Naidu is the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.

10 Interview with the deputy collector for the CRDA in Penumaka, Radakrishnayya, 8 September 2016.

11 However, by the time I left the capital region in December 2016, the order had still not been implemented.


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Updated On : 20th May, 2019


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