On a flight from New Delhi to Hyderabad some 15 years ago, I found myself seated next to N. Chandrababu Naidu, at the time the chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh. Our entire conversation was about his plan to build a new airport at Shamshabad, outside Hyderabad. Would it not be too far from the city, I asked Naidu. His reply was a lesson in strategic thinking on urban development.
Shamshabad will not just be an ordinary airport, Naidu told me. It was to be a hub airport, like Singapore and Dubai. “Singapore and Dubai airports are getting overcrowded. Hyderabad is bang in the middle, between them. It can be a new hub airport, not just for national and international transit passengers but for cargo, aircraft maintenance, export-oriented business, international conferences and exhibitions,” said Naidu. He saw Shamshabad airport as a magnet that would attract a range of services and manufacturing activity. An airport that would trigger urban development around it.
It was only a decade later that John Kasarda wrote Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, theorising how airports can trigger development. China began building Zhengzhou as an aerotropolis a decade after Naidu thought of Shamshabad-Cyberabad as an aerotropolis of a kind. But then, in 2004, Naidu was voted out of office.
In the UPA government, the civil aviation portfolio went to a minister from Maharashtra, who decided that Nagpur airport should be a cargo and maintenance hub, even though Nagpur did not have any of the positive economic and social externalities that Hyderabad offered. In the end, the Nagpur airport project did not take off, and Naidu’s planned aerotropolis project remains half done. A very Indian outcome to a very non-Indian idea at the time.
Thanks to the bifurcation of united AP, Naidu now has the opportunity to create yet another new city and, this time, he has decided to further scale-up his dreams. In building Amaravati, the new capital of the new state of AP, he wants a Singapore in India! There is enough talent in coastal Andhra and the globalised Andhra community to make this possible. Naidu’s “Act East” policy of seeking inspiration and capital from Singapore, Japan and China is laudable.
The scale and scope of Amaravati is impressive. While Singapore is an attractive model, being one of Asia’s best cities to live in, Amaravati should not aspire to become an “air-conditioned city”, emitting carbon dioxide and contributing to global warming the way Singapore and cities like it do. Naidu should draw on the best models of sustainable urban development and build an environment-friendly Amaravati that becomes a model for urban development.
In building Amaravati, Naidu will hopefully draw the right lessons from the Cyberabad experience and his tenure as CM of united AP. Till now, evidence on this score is not encouraging. Remember that while providing political leadership for the development of Hyderabad-Cyberabad, Naidu, in fact, contributed to the bifurcation of Andhra by allowing the benefits of that urban development to be cornered by a favoured few.
Imagine this: If in his previous tenure, Naidu had not concentrated all power in himself but had shared it with leaders from Telangana, like K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), making KCR deputy CM, if he had not allowed his own Kamma community to appropriate a disproportionate share of the benefits of Cyberabad’s development; if he had paid as much attention to Telangana’s development as he had to his own business interests, the demand for a separate Telangana would never have been revived by KCR.
In administering the new state of AP and building Amaravati, Naidu has already been charged of favouring the Kamma community and isolating the Reddys. It would be in his and the state’s interests that he come clean on such charges. In the emerging Kamma-Reddy animosity in AP, lies the seed of the demand for a Rayalaseema state. Naidu should rise above his own caste and reach out to all, if new AP has to really be a new AP.
Naidu has also succumbed to a common affliction of most political parties — barring the BJP and the Communist parties — namely, family rule. His promotion of his son, Lokesh, does not augur well for the future of not just the TDP but of new AP, symbolised by the idea of a “people’s capital” — mana
While Naidu’s innovative land-pooling and acquisition policy for Amaravati has been complimented as worthy of emulation across the country, he should adequately address concerns about misutilisation of arable wet lands and orchards. The late K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, a distinguished urban planner and former chairman of the board of the Centre for Policy Research, who prepared the report on building a new capital for Andhra, raised serious questions about the choices Naidu had made. These have not been convincingly answered. On the other hand, some analysts have charged the land-pooling scheme of being “anti-farmer, anti-poor and socially unjust”, favouring absentee landowners (at the cost of poorer tenant farmers) and speculators, all belonging to favoured castes.
It is in Naidu’s interests to address these and other concerns raised by Amaravati, the political questions raised by the ascendance of his son within his party and the social and economic questions raised by his caste loyalties. Having secured a second chance to build something new for posterity, he should avoid the traps created by his own ego.
Naidu is both a dreamer and a schemer. In united AP, the schemer got the better of the dreamer. He not only lost power, but the Telugus lost their state. In new AP, he has been given an opportunity to realise his dreams for the benefit of the Telugus in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. Amaravati can become India’s best city of the 21st century — which means a modern, humane, energetic, green and clean, and liveable city with public spaces, facilities and transport. If Naidu delivers, he would earn his place in history.
The writer is director for geoeconomics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi