- Andhra Pradesh Government has been going all out to develop a world-class capital, Amaravati, but is facing opposition from those who are concerned about the environmental and social problems it will lead to.
- While work on the new capital city is still in progress, environmentalists are highlighting concerns like the project’s potential impact on forest, river, riverbed, floodplains and more which can perhaps be avoided as the city is being built from scratch.
- Though environmentalists and activists opposing the project have lost the first round of legal battle against the state government in the National Green Tribunal, they plan to continue their struggle.
- Mongabay-India recently visited the upcoming city. This is the second in a series of stories from Amaravati.
Building a new city from scratch presents the opportunity to avoid environmental mistakes that other cities have already made.
So ever since the Andhra Pradesh Government began work on its new capital – Amaravati – environmentalists have been highlighting potential pitfalls to ensure that Amaravati is not another “environmental disaster” in the making. In November 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) rejected several cases registered against the project, even as it ordered a series of safeguards to address the concerns raised by activists. However, those seeking protection of the environment and the right to life of people that will be affected, vow to continue the fight.
In June 2014, Telangana was formed after being carved out of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad was designated as the common capital for both the states for 10 years and during this time Andhra Pradesh had to develop a new capital city. Subsequently, the Andhra Pradesh Government led by Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu decided to build a greenfield (built from scratch with no imposition of prior infrastructure) new capital – Amaravati.
The state government enacted the AP Capital Region Development Act 2014 and formed the AP Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) to develop the new city. The new capital’s location was identified between Vijayawada and Guntur alongside the River Krishna, comprising 24 revenue villages and part of Tadepalli municipality of Guntur district, covering a total area of 53,748 acres.
This is where the protests erupted. Environmentalists, farmer groups, retired government officials and several others raised voices against the proposed location and development of Amaravati, while highlighting several environmental issues like the impact on forests, water bodies, river Krishna and wetlands.
“Amaravati is likely to be an environmental disaster in making. There are a series of environmental issues involved, revolving around forests, water bodies, wetlands, floodplains and the riverbed. It is a flood-prone area. Kondaveeti Vagu is known to inundate large stretches within the Amaravati project area. Flood mitigation measures are going to be expensive,” said E.A.S. Sarma, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who served as a finance and power secretary in the Indian government.
Sarma, who was also one of the petitioners in the NGT against the Amaravati project, stressed that the construction of urban structures in that area will accentuate the flood risks significantly.
“There are several water bodies and wetlands in Amaravati area which will get adversely affected by urbanisation. Water bodies act as cushions against flooding and any shrinkage in their capacities will increase the flood risk and erode biodiversity. Recent deluge in Kerala should remind the AP government on how largescale interference with the local ecology can lead to such calamities,” he warned.
AP Government proposes an ideal city
Three years into a ten year project, Amaravati is still work in progress. While the future will decide the reality, the city’s plans by the Andhra Pradesh Government promise a sustainable, future-ready city, free from pollution, carbon-neutral and equipped with renewable power.
The city plans to support a population of 600,000 by 2025 and 3.5 million by 2050.
During Mongabay-India’s recent visit to Amaravati, the officials at the APCRDA, which is implementing Amaravati’s development, stressed that once completed Amaravati’s development will be studied and emulated by the world.
The state government promises to develop green and climate resilient infrastructure to make sustainability and climate resilience the core of Amaravati’s development. The government also proposes to develop a one-of-its-kind “happy” city which will have over 30 percent of its areas as blue-green spaces, with high emphasis on sustainability and with focus on renewable power. The project proposal envisages cycle tracks across the city, electric vehicles, detailed waste management, sewage treatment and distributed solar power generation.
The government also proposes to develop the riverfront area as a mixed-use area for commercial and recreational use for the people of Amaravati. All the projects undertaken as part of the Amaravati development are proposed to follow mitigation measures to minimise the impact on land use, topography, landscape and drainage of each project site and surrounding region.
The general climate of the area is hot and humid. The development of a new capital is certainly expected to lead to issues related to urban heat islands. But a senior official of the APCRDA said that the issue of urban heat islands and runoff is being addressed by providing green areas and water bodies.
“We have plans for microclimate management to keep the temperature of the city under control. Our plan is to bring down the temperature of the capital by several degrees compared to its surrounding areas,” the official added.
Initial estimate of funds for the project had pegged that a capital of about Rs.300 billion (Rs. 30,000 crore or USD 4.24 billion) would be required for developing Amaravati. A July 2018 APCRDA report talks about project cost in the range of Rs 424.5 billion to 495 billion (USD 6 to 7 billion).
During the case in the NGT, the state authorities emphasised to the court that environmental sustainability is the highest priority and various measures are being taken for the conservation of water and protection of green cover.
However, it is the aspect of green cover that has been one of the main concern areas for environmentalists. For instance, Sarma claimed that the AP Government is trying to de-notify thousands of hectares of forest land, promising to carry out compensatory afforestation elsewhere.
“The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has recently indicted several states including AP on how they had failed to implement compensatory afforestation. Removal of natural forests in Amaravati will further aggravate not only flood risks but also environmental degradation and the consequential problems,” he added.
However, Sreedhar Cherukuri, who is the commissioner of the APCRDA and is leading the project, said Amaravati will have ample green cover.
“A city generally doesn’t have more than 10 percent of the green space but this city at the planning level itself has more than 30 percent as the public green spaces. If you take the footprint of the city, 60 percent is green and 40 percent is the footprint of the buildings. That is the plan we have and that’s how we are moving forward,” explained Cherukuri while speaking to Mongabay-India.
“It is the only state where the green cover is growing year after year. It is the only state in India where there is positive growth and the chief minister for the last four years, every Monday, conducts a teleconference with more than 10,000 people on water conservation and tree plantation … that is one of the foremost agenda of the state,” he added.
Fertile farm lands will be urbanised
Though AP Government claims of taking all possible steps to address concerns of local people protesting against it, the opposition to the project is far from over.
Activist Anumolu Gandhi, a former leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party and who himself has refused to give up his land for this project, said Amaravati will become a “ghost capital” because common man will not be able to live in it due to high real estate prices.
“Out of nearly 54,000 acres of land identified for the city, 42,000 acres is cultivated land and of that, 40,000 acres is irrigated land. It is a very fertile soil. Thus, the problem is not for those farmers who are landholders but the farm based labour, the leaseholders and villagers as they will suffer,” said Gandhi.
Gandhi also emphasised that the area is highly prone to floods and in 2009 out of the 42,000 acres more than 35,000 acres were inundated in floods.
Sarma echoed views of Gandhi and said that the Amaravati project planning has not given enough importance to conserving the flood banks and floodplains of River Krishna. He also pointed out that there are several paleo-channels underlying the Amaravati project area but the APCRDA seems to be unaware of the same.
Sarma too said that the most significant environmental impact in Amaravati project area is on account of the disruptive changes that have taken place in the pattern of land-use as more than 30,000 acres of fertile land under agriculture, especially adjacent to River Krishna, have been diverted overnight for real estate activity.
Meanwhile, Gandhi alleged that there is rampant illegal sand mining going on in the region. During a visit to one such site near the banks of River Krishna, Mongabay-India witnessed sand mining being carried out openly with the help of huge machines without any board in sight giving any information about the project.
“There is rampant illegal mechanised sand mining in and adjacent to River Krishna which has medium-term environmental implications. Both the apex court and NGT have issued guidelines on river sand mining but the state government has often violated the same,” Sarma added.
There are other challenges ahead
The World Bank is also involved in the development of Amaravati. After receiving numerous representations against the project, it had sent a team in 2017 to the state to ascertain the ground reality. Following the visit, the World Bank has apparently adopted a cautious approach.
A query to World Bank, seeking information about its decision regarding representations highlighting environmental concerns associated with the project, received no response.
Meanwhile, activists also worry that Amaravati may turn into a slum city.
“When urban clusters come up, constructions workers migrate to those clusters from several parts of the state. Usually, they settle down near those clusters. If this aspect is not taken into account in urban planning, it will lead to the formation of slums. To avoid this, as per JNNURM norm, at least 25 percent of each layout area is required to be set apart for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS),” said Sarma.
“In AP, the urban development authorities have generally adopted a lower norm of 10 percent for this. However, in the case of Amaravati project, the APCRDA Act has adopted a norm of only 5 percent, which is surely a recipe for making it a slum-city,” he added.
It has also been pointed out that the majority of the resources are being diverted towards Amaravati leading to the reduction of government expenditure in backward regions of north Andhra Pradesh and Rayalseema.
Sarma warned that the AP Government has resorted to heavy borrowings for Amaravati due to which the state’s finances are already under severe stress and “the burden of repayment of the loans will ultimately fall on the future governments and, of course, the people at large.”
Banner image: Unchecked illegal sand mining on the banks of River Krishna in Amaravati. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.