New Delhi: A stroll through the ruins of Tughlaqabad fort is an education. Despite the utter desolation of the place, nothing can obscure the sheer scale of one man’s ambition to build a city from scratch. If anything at all, the ill-fated fort is a reminder that building cities is a very old endeavour. There is an indomitable desire to create thriving settlements meant to last centuries, to erect fortresses and citadels that would survive changes of regimes and climate.
When we say we are going to build a city, we mean that we, and not just the place, are going to change. At the heart of the Andhra Pradesh government’s plan to build its new capital city, Amaravati, is this promise of change.
On 24 June, chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu announced that his cabinet had approved the proposal submitted by a Singaporean consortium of firms to develop the new capital.
The state government will be choosing the final master builder for Amaravati through the Swiss Challenge method, which entails that the proposal submitted by the Singapore consortium is now open to be challenged and improved upon by competing firms.
Following an evaluation of the competing ideas, the final master developer will be chosen by 15 August.
The competing firms are from Japan, China and the UK.
The two firms that authored the chosen proposal—Ascendas-Singbridge Pte Ltd and Sembcorp Industries Ltd—are Singapore-based consultancies known for building industrial and IT (information technology) parks, integrated townships and mixed-use developments.
Their respective portfolios evoke images of Hyderabad’s Hi-Tec City, the technology, IT and business district developed during Naidu’s tenure as chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh.
Naidu is credited with having put Hyderabad on the global map through urban restructuring that was contingent on creating knowledge enclaves of IT, ITES (information technology-enabled services) and biotechnology.
His models were Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor and America’s Silicon Valley. His advisers were the World Bank and McKinsey & Co., and their advice to Naidu hinged on attracting foreign investment, creating an information society, and striving for the epithet of ‘world-class’. Hi-Tec City is the imprint of this ambition. Naidu, bereft of Hyderabad, has set out to recreate that magic in Amaravati, and is holding on to familiar tools.
The Draft Perspective Plan for Amaravati’s capital area development takes cognizance of the colossal scale of change that the region is expected to undergo.
What is now fertile agricultural land located between the urban agglomerations of Guntur and Vijayawada anticipates the influx of 13.8 million people and 5.65 million jobs by 2050.
If the action plans are indeed the future, the ecologically sensitive floodplains of the Krishna river are expected to accommodate infrastructure-intensive development for industrial corridors, ports, transport hubs, water and waste management, coastal area regulation and power generation.
To a lay reader, it is a compelling document.
The Draft Perspective Plan has been framed with the support of Singapore, the city-state famous for being a template for urban development in Asian cities.
At a media briefing on 24 June, Naidu had stated that a world-class capital cannot be built without help from foreign nations.
However, Anant Maringanti, director of research institute Hyderabad Urban Lab, warns against excessive reliance on foreign agencies to provide the blueprint for a city’s development.
“Governments cannot outsource their intellect. Governments need to have a strong capacity within themselves to determine what they need, and take exactly those things from outside (sources),” he said.
He argued that while Singapore might be able to assist with a few aspects of building a new city, the city-state was in no way placed to cope with the changes and contestations that come with intervening in a place so drastically. Coping with and managing such change is the domain of the local government, which needs to be strengthened first and foremost.
“What they are completely ignoring is that you cannot build this capital without taking migrant labour from the villages; you cannot build this city without taking land from the farmers; you cannot build it without affecting the ecology of the entire region. These are all things Singapore can help you in no way with,” he said.
Local governments need to be strengthened and empowered to take on the challenge Amaravati poses.
But is there a reason why our visions for urban revival are based on the experience of cities that also have a history of authoritarian governments?
Partha Mukhopadhyay, who is a senior fellow at New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research said, “I think that to draw a relationship between the nature of the government and the nature of the city is facile.”
There are deeper underlying structures that influence cities than just the nature of the government in power. He added, “but I do think that we are just not being imaginative enough to look at our cities as vanguard cities of the future. I am not even sure at this point in time if any of us even have an imagination (for this), and if we have it, then who has it. Local governments certainly don’t have the agency and power to have an imagination.”
The question of the way we imagine our cities and who imagines it is a crucial one.
Amaravati follows the example of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and New Delhi wanting to fashion themselves in the image of Singapore, Shanghai and London, respectively.
Despite the models of development that have been foisted on Indian cities, the messy reality of contested Indian urbanization cannot be wished away.
As Amaravati moves towards an imagination of change and overhaul and perfection, one has to hope that there is room to accommodate what might not be foreseen in the Draft Perspective Plan, but is in plain sight everywhere else.