'A city like no other': hopes on hold for model Indian capital

by Bhuvan BAGGA
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Amaravati has been slow to materialise and remains little more than dust and farms as its crusaders resort to crowdfunding to turn the pipe dream into reality

It promised to be "an Indian city like no other" -- a modern, leafy metropolis modelled on Singapore, where citizens would enjoy parks and rivers and breath air unrivalled in freshness.

But the southern capital of Amaravati has been painfully slow to materialise and remains little more than dust and farms as its crusaders resort to crowdfunding to turn the pipe dream into reality.

A staggering $15 billion is needed to transform Amaravati from a few shiny buildings, villages and thousands of acres of agricultural land into the envisioned capital of Andhra Pradesh, one of India's largest states.

Andhra once had another capital -- the booming tech and business powerhouse of Hyderabad, which pulses with IT know-how and a startup culture.

But the revenue-rich city was assigned as the capital of a brand new state, Telangana, when it was carved out of Andhra in 2014 following a populist movement to secede.

The two states were to share Hyderabad until Andhra chose another city as its capital.

But authorities decided instead to build a grand new seat of power some 275 kilometres (170 miles) away on the banks of the river Krishna.

While India has a tradition of planned cities, including Sir Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi and Chandigarh in the north which was designed by Franco-Swiss modernist trailblazer Le Corbusier, nothing of this scale has been tackled for decades.

Amaravati was envisioned as a metropolis free of the chaos, traffic and air pollution that plagues India's urban centres.

"It'll be an Indian city like no other," said Sreedhar Cherukuri, commissioner of Andhra's Capital Regional Development Authority.

- Largely deserted -

Amaravati's anticipated 3.5 million inhabitants would enjoy efficient public transport including a monorail and metro network, while trees would shroud half the city with a green zone akin to New York's Central Park, Cherukuri told AFP.

Consultants from Amsterdam provided advice about an extensive canal system and expert opinion was sought from Singapore and Japan, among others.

"Everything has been planned to the last detail. We've taken the best ideas from around two dozen global cities but this perhaps comes closest to Singapore in its inspiration," Cherukuri said.

However, nearly three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone, Amaravati is largely deserted.

An island of modern office buildings in the middle of fields hosts Andhra's chief minister and state government, which relocated there after Telangana claimed Hyderabad.

Yet there is scant evidence of the promised utopia.

Half-finished settlements dot farmlands, most not connected by proper roads. Plans for the promised riverfront, housing and public transport have been marred by delays.

"We came here because it really has the plans and potential to become a global city," said a university official at a huge but largely empty campus in the planned city.

"The on-ground infrastructure development, particularly the roads, has been slow," he said, asking not to be named.

K. Nageshwar, an independent legislator in Telangana, said: "Nothing much has happened on the ground in Amaravati. It is still more dream than reality."

- 'Extravagance' criticised -

Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu ambitiously suggested in 2014 that the project -- unlike anything ever seen in India -- could be completed within five years.

But since then officials have been reluctant to offer a timetable for its completion.

Naidu, who today governs Andhra from a high-tech office in Amaravati, insists a magnificent city will one day rise from the plains.

"I am not changing any plans for Amaravati. I only have to work harder to make it a reality," the brainchild of the nascent capital told AFP recently.

Cherukuri, the official overseeing Amaravati's development, said contracts worth $5 billion have already been issued, spurring the first phase of development.

It was hoped the project would also attract foreign investment, he added. But funds are running low.

Naidu blames the national government for reneging on promises made during the Telangana split that would have conferred a special status and ensured a stream of financial aid and incentives to bankroll the dream city.

The dispute soured ties with New Delhi, culminating with Naidu going on a hunger strike in April and severing ties with Modi's ruling party.

"This is a prestigious project for the nation and if government of India had supported it, we could have showcased it to the world," Naidu said.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has rejected assertions Andhra was double crossed, saying it got all it was promised.

Naidu remains broadly popular in Andhra but has been accused of pursuing the eye-wateringly extravagant project for personal prestige.

"Naidu very clearly projected Amaravati more as an instrument of electioneering," said K. Nageshwar, the independent legislator.

Unflagging in optimism, the chief minister declared last month that his new city would be among the happiest in the world, promising a dedicated commission to gauge the wellbeing of its future citizens.

"This is all optics and not substantial," said Nageshwar.

"He can't disown the capital now. I won't be surprised if he's still talking about it in 2019 and 2024 elections."

Amaravati has been slow to materialise and remains little more than dust and farms as its crusaders resort to crowdfunding to turn the pipe dream into reality

A staggering $15 billion is needed to transform Amaravati from a few shiny buildings, villages and thousands of acres of agricultural land into the envisioned capital of Andhra Pradesh, one of India's largest states

Nearly three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi lay the foundation stone for the greenfield city, Amaravati is largely deserted

Amaravati was envisioned as a metropolis free of the chaos, traffic and air pollution that plagues India's urban centres