Thursday, July 25, 2024

Amaravati: A city back in India’s political arclights

This election placed the Constitution of India in the national spotlight, but what its results have brightened overnight is the prospect of Amaravati emerging as an entirely new city to serve as the capital of Andhra Pradesh (AP). A prime mover of this project, N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), has risen to political prominence. 

Not only did Naidu’s party win power in AP, a state bifurcated a decade ago with Hyderabad to be hived off as part of Telangana, its 16 Lok Sabha seats constitute crucial support for the BJP-led coalition that’s set to take charge at the Centre. Reports suggest the TDP chief is looking for a big central package to dust off a plan that stayed mostly on paper for half a decade, the result of neglect by AP’s outgoing regime, which wanted Amaravati only as the state’s legislative seat, with Kurnool as its judicial HQ and Visakhapatnam its administrative capital. 

High real-estate stakes may have made tussles inevitable over what’s best built where, but this week’s power tilt has loaded the odds in favour of Amaravati as originally conceived. While Naidu is the chief champion of this project, there is also a major opportunity in it for the BJP and Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. 

Infrastructure development has been a definitive thrust under Modi’s national leadership, but no planned-from-scratch city has arisen in recent memory on the scale of, say, Chandigarh, which arose under Nehru’s watch. Amaravati may well be a chance for both Modi and Naidu to literally consolidate an urban legacy.

India has been urbanizing so rapidly that it’s a wonder how our existing urban spaces have managed to hold up (even if this isn’t evenly true across an overcrowded urban-scape). It has long been obvious we need whole new cities that afford citizens the same sort of job and life-style options that metro-dwellers enjoy. We need dispersal. 

Instead, we have seen urban sprawls emerge and expand in haphazard ways around the few mega-cities we have, with great bulks of extra concrete and asphalt doing little to help residents lead better lives. Technology seers had once expected digital connectivity to make cities obsolete as generators of economic value, reversing an industrial trend of people swarming into them. 

The pandemic even tested how work could be done without gathering together. Yet, cities that throb with life in all their diversity seem set to endure for a variety of good reasons, some organic and cultural, others intrinsic and practical (think airport proximity). 

If urban living is what the future holds for most of us, regardless of how technology reshapes the economy, then it might be worthwhile to double down on a grand urban plan and make up for lost time. If Amaravati proves a success, it could set the tone for more to come.

Nehru’s dream city of Chandigarh reflects an aesthetic that held highbrow appeal in the heady days of early freedom, a modernity drawn from self-evident truths of Euclidean and Constitutional inspiration both. This is a hard act to follow—partly because statism is passé—but Amaravati could also be mounted as an art project. 

Reports of the involvement of filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli had hinted of an architectural theme taken from portrayals of palatial grandeur in his film Baahubali. Whatever the city’s outward look is inspired by, it should be built to be climate friendly and tech-focused—not just in the sense of being perfectly green and digitally equipped, but also to convey India’s idea of a city created for tomorrow.

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