Dream City

Another Day in Paradise

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We travel through Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district where 29 idyllic villages are set to make way for Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s promised capital city of Singapore-in-Andhra
Since early November, a minor artery connecting the hamlets of Krishnayapalem and Rayapudi in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district has been witness to a remarkable spectacle. Every day, for the past month or so, this strip of road parallel to the river Krishna has been flooded by dozens of luxury cars flying like magical arrows to their destination: the new, promised land of Singapore-in-Seemandhra. Stranger things have happened since Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu unveiled grand plans for a sprawling, ‘world-class’ capital on the riverfront. From men in starched white shirts gazing lustily at a sea of paddy to real estate deals thrashed out on the hoods of SUVs, this highway of dreams cutting across the proposed trapezoid capital territory has seen it all in the short span of a month.

In Venkatapalem, a temporary structure perched at the lip of a field of maize and painted an arresting shade of blue advertises the services of Sri Vengamamba Real Estate, one of many brokerage agencies to have mushroomed in the district. Across the road, to the north where the river runs less than 2 km away, are the fields of gold, fertile enough to bear three crops a year. “Till recently, the fertility of your land was the sole measure of your prosperity in these parts,” says K Ishwar Reddy, a partner in the venture. “An acre of land by the riverside fetched about Rs 70-80 lakh until a few months ago. But land that lay far south of the river where you could grow just one crop a year was worth Rs 10-15 lakh an acre,” he says.

Naidu’s proposal to pool over 30,000 acres of land from 29 villages south-west of Prakasam Barrage—a dam and a road bridge connecting the Krishna and Guntur districts at Vijayawada— for a megacity appears to have levelled these differences. “Now any land in the vicinity of the capital is worth a uniform Rs 1.2- 1.5 crore,” says Reddy, conducting his business in the shade of an Indian coral tree. Reddy and his partner R Ramakrishna Rao are farmers whose primary occupation these days is to buy and sell land on behalf of “doctors and engineers from Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam”, besides small investors who, they say, are increasingly approaching them in groups to buy parcels of land around the capital territory. When all this is over, Rao would like to manage a bar or a restaurant in the new city. “We are people of the soil, but we are willing to sacrifice some of our land so that our children may study and enjoy all the modern luxuries we never had,” he says.

‘Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,’ wrote Italo Calvino in his novel Invisible Cities, where a Venetian merchant and a Tartar emperor exchange notes on imaginary cities. They may well have been talking about Naidu’s grandiose vision for a capital. An astute businessman, Naidu is selling the dream of trundling about an air-conditioned office to farmers who toil in the sun. Like a Tom Sawyer luring boys to pay for the honour of white-washing a fence, he is wending the imagination of a people bound to the land by dangling before them the bait of Progress: a capital with three inner circles, ring roads and highrises, that they must help build.

Over 100,000 people are estimated to be living within the proposed capital territory—bounded by Prakasam Barrage in the north-east, Borupalem in the north-west, Pedaparimi in the south-west and the temple town of Mangalagiri in the south- east—and less than half of them are landed farmers, estimates Dr G Gangadhar, a former Congress spokesperson and BC Jana Sabha State President. Many have already struck a Faustian bargain with the government to pool their lands in exchange for jobs, development, and a 1,000-sq-ft residential patch in the capital. Others are holding out for ‘a better package’. “It is the landless and the families dependent on one or two acres for their livelihood who will be the worst affected,” Gangadhar says. This section of society has gone largely unrepresented at negotiations between villages and a government panel led by Tadikonda MLA T Sravan Kumar that is touring the region.

Late one evening, we drive down a tapering road framed by silhouettes of swaying palms to join a crowd gathered under a shamiana in Uddandarayuni Palem, a village in Thullur mandal, about 20 km from Vijayawada, that has inveighed against land pooling. “Let us usher in a suvarna yuga (a golden age),” urges Nannappaneni Rajakumari, a Telugu Desam Party leader and one of its most effective spokespersons. “You have to make some sacrifices. But if you do, we will build a capital so fine that the people of Telangana will be left searching the state for Andhrites, for everyone would have moved here.” Assurances are made in the heat of the moment—jobs for everyone, all tractors to be put to good use, grievance redressal—and the virtue of a government that is ready to defer its paradisiacal dreams till the harvest comes home is paraded for good measure. Choreographed applause follows. Next up on stage, in a Nehru jacket and fashionably nerdy glasses, is Murali Mohan, an actor and the TDP MP from Rajahmundry in East Godavari district. “More than 75 per cent of the people are ready,” he tells us. “The rest will come around. We hope to complete the process of pooling in a year.” Interestingly, Mohan’s Jayabheri Group was accused of irregularities in real estate deals in Hitec City, Hyderabad.

Metres away from this chorus, insistent whispers call out to us from a pool of darkness. “The banana needs another 16 months to fruit and they are talking about giving up our land in a year?” says N Suresh, in a wispy voice. “A couple of weeks ago, I went to 200 houses in the village and asked people if they were willing to give up their land; 162 of them voted against it. We staged a sit-out along with farm workers,” says the farmer. Most people in the village will remain impervious to Naidu’s seductions, says Rajendra Kumar Jonnalagadda, a software engineer in Hyderabad whose family cultivates seven acres in Uddandarayuni Palem. “This is the land that funded my education. It fetches a few lakhs of rupees every year. I don’t see my parents ever giving it up for anything,” he says. The youth of the village, now scattered over the face of the earth, plan to mount a campaign against the capital.

In five years’ time, the capital’s eight-lane ring roads may rip through some of these fertile tracts, skyscrapers may overhang the river where shy birds warble evening songs among the low bushes today, the green stubble of paddy and the fecund banana plantations will have made way for growth of a different kind. P Sudhakar Rao, a TDP supporter and a chartered accountant from Uddandarayuni Palem, says he would like to see the city named NTR Nagar. “We look forward to the day when we won’t have to go to Guntur and Vijayawada to buy clothes, jewellery and appliances. We will have access to good medical care right here,” he says, on the sidelines of the meeting.

Others fear there will be no place for them in a gentrified city. News of the meeting with the government panel has sent the SC Colony of Uddandarayuni Palem into a tizzy. The Madiga settlement with a population of 1,200 hasn’t much land to lose, but there is a sense of incarceration, of livelihoods being at stake. Most residents of this colony of hutments and dark streets are farm labourers and shepherds. Katari Bujji, a 23-year- old who grazes his 40 sheep and eight buffaloes in the grasslands by the river, is a worried man. “They are saying on TV that the city will be like Singapore. I have not seen Singapore. I don’t know what will become of my animals,” he says. “We live a free life. When there is no food in the kitchen, we go to the sugarcane fields and forage for food,” says Nagarathnam Pamidipati, 60, who earns a living de-weeding the vegetable patches nearby. “In a big city you have to think about safety. And everything including food will be expensive.” It is a capital being built by the landed Kamma community, for other Kammas, alleges Kathi Padma Rao, a Dalit ideologue from Ponnur, a town south of Guntur. “Landless Dalits and OBCs are going to migrate en masse unless industry is established this side of the river, generating ample employment,” he says.

The riverfront. A rolling terrain wrapped in mists at dawn, it is a montage, revealing itself in pieces: patches of green watered by slobbering brooks, rocky beds strewn with garbage, lush alluvial plantations, blocks of private cottages. Cocks crow feebly and men squat by the bushes in the semi-darkness of Rayapudi, where the village road crosses the highway to Amaravathi, the ancient home of the Satavahanas and one of many towns on the Krishna considered for the capital, and dismissed. Here, a path cuts through fields of banana, cauliflower and sugarcane, ending abruptly at the river, an opaque sheet occasionally rippling with the wind. Clay diyas and flowers from a puja last evening litter the steps leading into the water. In the distance, framing the gray horizon are anchors of land amidst the endless river. Called lankas, some of these islands are farmed, others enveloped by dense mangroves. Abdul Rafiq’s house is the closest to the river—it draws a meager crowd of tourists—and his wife is boiling a kettle of water on a wood stove to make tea. He sits on a charpoy, watching the news on television. “Mornings here are always pleasant,” he says, in Hindi. “But for how long—once you start dumping the wastes of a city into the river, how can we live here?” His family—his mother, two brothers, a sister, and three children—makes Rs 3-4 lakh a year from a two-acre patch where they grow just about everything: turmeric, banana, guava, carrot and onion. “There is nothing like this soil or this weather, in all of Andhra,” says Rafiq, 30, shaking his head.

Rayapudi also has a fishing community of about a hundred families, each dependent on the river for its daily catch—sheelavathi, bochu, jalla and bommidayalu—worth Rs 100-200. The fish have been dwindling of late, perhaps due to the pesticide runoff from the farms, says Krishna Dharmadi, 45, untangling a fine-meshed yellow net on a rocky platform by the river. The country boats moored nearby seem to quiver with the repeated thuds of a woman washing clothes. Development could be the way out of a life of poverty, the fishermen say. “The fish will fetch double the price in a city,” points out Ramarao Akula, 35. “Besides, we are ready to give up fishing and relocate if we got employment.” Here, among the most dispossessed, hope surfaces like bones through skin worn thin.

Naidu’s Capital pitch has come as a windfall of sorts for one village in particular. When Y Achaiah was posted to Thullur as sub-inspector of Police from Narasaraopet, it was just another obscure village, 25 km from Vijayawada. “I hadn’t even heard of it,” he says. But for the fact that there were fewer rowdies disturbing the peace here, he hadn’t been thrilled. That was until a month and a half ago, when the VIPs started to descend on Thullur. “Next thing I knew, this village was set to be the heart of the capital. Now there are proposals to upgrade the police station, taking the number of staff up from 25 to 60,” says Achaiah, his manner that of a man in the thick of the action.

Thullur, with its mom-and-pop stores, its pasty-faced statues of Nehru and NT Rama Rao, and its two bustling chowks, is bracing for the biggest change since the mobile phone. Furniture shops and greengrocers have turned realtors and put up importunate billboards. Eateries are doing brisk business. Children in uniform skip to school, revelling in the conviction that the earth must now revolve around Thullur.

Kiran Dewari, a Rajasthani who runs a tea shop in the village, says things heat up at around noon, when businessmen and real estate prospectors start trickling in. “Thulasi Theatre, across the street, is a meeting place for bigwigs,” he says, pumping hot masala chai from a steel flask. “Naturally, I sell more tea these days. At least 30 per cent more than normal.” Twenty-six-year- old Sharif Sheikh, who hawks vegetables at his father’s shop, is thrilled with the salvo of attention being lavished upon his village of less than 10,000 people. “I had never thought in my wildest dreams that Thullur would be part of the state capital,” he says. “Singapore tak chala gaya apne gaon ka naam (the name of our village has reached Singapore).” Sheikh always dreamed of a government job and had even considered moving to a city after graduation. “Now, the jobs are coming to Thullur,” he says.

In Krishnadevaraya’s times, the village used to be called Tandavarevupatnam, claims a village elder, Gadde Sambasiva Rao, sitting under a tree overlooking a dried-up lake. Rao is happy to pool his three acres of farmland, which he lets out to a tenant, for the sake of the capital. In the freshly-tilled fields outside the village, the sun seems to beat down on a harsher reality. Half a dozen Lambadi women, scarves around their heads and shirts worn over their saris, are sowing maize in straight lines across two-and-a-half acres. They are paid Rs 100 a day for eight hours of back-breaking work. “When we asked for a Rs 20 raise, the farmer refused. And he has made a fortune selling land,” says Malavath Saraswati, 47. Her daughter, a 23-year-old who studied to be a teacher, is unable to find a suitable job or a husband. “She won’t work in the fields. But an educated husband doesn’t come cheap. By the time Chandrababu Naidu’s capital comes up and she gets a job, my daughter will be too old,” Saraswati says.

These are unreal times, says Mohammad Babu, a corporator from Tadepalli, near the capital zone. He leans against his Alto parked by the side of the road at Sakhamuru, south of Thullur, surrounded by real estate advisers who are hotly debating the worth of a piece of land he is considering investing in. “The prices aren’t reasonable anymore,” Babu says. “Because most buyers bring black money, wads of cash running into crores. There are no advances or agreements—the deal is over in two days.”

Babu returns empty-handed today, but elsewhere, in Pedaparimi village, an outpost along the border with more political figurines than shops daubed across its central square, Saripudi Sambasiva Rao, 42, is celebrating. He recently sold 1.75 acres of his six-acre holding at a rate of Rs 75 lakh per acre. “I grow chillies and cotton. When a real estate agent from Guntur offered to buy a part of my land, I sold it to fund the education of my two daughters. The elder one, who is in class 12, wants to be an engineer,” he says. His countenance and swagger suggest otherwise. Sporting sunglasses and an orange checked shirt, he looks every bit the nouveau riche who, to paraphrase Ramakrishna Rao, wears shorts and drives an open-top jeep to flaunt his spoils.