Andhra Pradesh is being split in two, and India is building a new capital for the portion of the state that will keep the Andhra name. The city will reside on what was banana fields and other farmland.
"It’s telling that all the major holidays in the region revolve around farming — precisely the aspect of life that the new city seeks to erase," Rollig observes. Still, the rapidly urbanizing country will see its cities grow somewhere, Andhra Pradesh's officials hope that somewhere is in the hot and fertile land they've carved out for Amravati.1
The three titans of India at its moment of independence had divergent visions of the country’s urban future. Mohandas Gandhi insisted that “the true Indian civilization is in the Indian villages.” B. R. Ambedkar, champion of Dalits, the so-called untouchables, disdained the Indian village as “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance” and urged lower-caste Indians to begin anew in cities. Likewise, but in service of his industrial dreams, Jawaharlal Nehru, the republic’s first prime minister, endorsed an urban ideal “unfettered by the traditions of the past.”
Gandhi is losing this argument badly. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company has estimated that at its current rate of urbanization, India will need to build the equivalent of “a new Chicago every year.” Most of those Chicagos will materialize by expanding already existing cities. A handful will be built from scratch, and Amaravati is one of them. So why this particular Chicago, at this particular time, in this particular place? The short answer is that in 2014, the state of Andhra Pradesh split in two, and the new state, called Telangana, got the capital. So what’s left of Andhra Pradesh needs a new capital city ASAP.
Naidu surveyed his new domain, the 400-year-old state capital of Hyderabad — the City of Pearls, the old royal seat of the Nizams — and decided that its future lay in information technology. He wielded his legendary talent with PowerPoint to convince Bill Gates to set up operations in the city; IBM, Dell, and Oracle followed. A regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Naidu liked to say that the only “ism” that matters is tourism. The state’s Communist constituency disagreed, complaining that he was ignoring agriculture, which was how most Telugus made (and still make) a living, and in 2003 suspected Maoist insurgents bombed his car. Naidu survived, but his tenure did not. After four consecutive years of drought, the farmers voted him out in 2004.
While he was away, his state decided to bifurcate. United Andhra Pradesh was shaped like a big scoop full of ice cream. What remains is the empty scoop, and Hyderabad lies deep within the lost ice cream. According to their separation agreement, the two states can share Hyderabad as a capital until 2024, but that was never going to happen. Naidu swept back to office two years ago on his reputation as the man who’d transformed Hyderabad into Cyberabad, insisting that only he could build a new capital to surpass it. He has played well off of his people’s sense of loss. In 1953, the territory that is now Andhra Pradesh lost the great city of Madras as its capital; now it has lost Hyderabad, and Naidu campaigned using rhetoric that analogized their plight to that of refugees.
Amaravati will be India’s fifth planned state capital since independence. All but one have been born from a wound: Gandhinagar from the bifurcation of the state of Bombay; Naya Raipur from the bifurcation of the state of Madhya Pradesh; and Chandigarh from that most traumatic rupture of all, the partition of India and Pakistan, which left Indian Punjab without a capital. Each of these bitter rifts has left its mark on the new capital it necessitated. The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, splitting as it does a state that had been united by a common language, feels like a particularly fraternal conflict, and Naidu’s plan for Amaravati is compulsively competitive in a way that only brothers can be.
A greenfield plan, though, also comes with no shortage of risks. Critics have pointed out that Amaravati’s chosen site is prone to flooding, unbearably hot for much of the year, and susceptible to earthquakes. These are technical problems with technical solutions. But there are much bigger risks.
First is that planned cities often fail to come to life the way their planners hope. They are always a gamble — with the exception of war and space exploration, they are the costliest gamble humans make. South Korea hasn’t even finished building a $40 billion planned city called Songdo — which, like Amaravati, was conceived as a model “smart city” — and it’s already been dismissed, even by some techno-optimists, as a failure. China, despite an urbanization rate faster than India’s, has built several planned cities that are ghost towns. The danger with a planned capital is that it will be strictly administrative, without the spontaneity that makes a city thrive — an accusation that is often levied against the planned capitals India has already built.
The state agency responsible for coordinating the construction of Amaravati — the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority, or APCRDA — insists that its population projections are on the mark. N. Srikanth, the authority’s commissioner until August, rattled off counterexamples: Astana, the planned capital of Kazakhstan, for example, reached its population projection far sooner than expected. “Whatever anybody may say,” he told me, “the population is going to come in much earlier than your planners say. For that reason, the infrastructure has to be prebuilt.” Timing is crucial. Population, investment, and infrastructure must all be perfectly coordinated to avoid tremendous waste. If shops open too early, they’ll go bankrupt. If they come too late, the residents will have nowhere to buy their daily goods. A highly efficient centralized bureaucracy can make this coordination less nerve-racking, but that’s not what India has.