It is a simple story of faith moving mountains.
Back in 2014, word spread across the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh that the the state was going to be carved into two.
Within months, people in the Telangana half would continue to refer to Hyderabad as their capital, while those in the other half – now known as the new Andhra Pradesh – had to create a new capital city for themselves.
The residents looked around them – a long coastline, several ports and urban centres, fertile villages supplying the state with its agricultural rice bowl, and a new capital to be called Amaravati, auspiciously named after a Buddhist town nearby to mean “The city that lives on forever”. The future looked bright, but what was the plan to get there?
Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu did have a plan. It was radical and needed the buy-in of villagers whose farms fell within the 217-sq-km area set aside for the capital city. They had to surrender their land and allow for a redesign and redistribution of the plots, in order for the government to yield better use of the land as a whole.
If they took part in this land-pooling scheme, Mr Naidu promised them better farmland, higher land value, annuity, a well-planned city and better welfare in return. The farmers resisted at first, but hesitation and doubt eventually gave way to faith that the man would honour his word. In the end, both came through for each other.
With these large plots of land aggregated and turned into a blank canvas, Surbana Jurong’s Planning team stepped in as master planner for Amaravati.
The villagers – about 100,000 of them from 24 villages – were heartened to see that these planners from a Singapore-based company would sit down with them to hear them out. They showed up in throngs to express their wishes – for irrigation, reliable power supply, proximity to better schools, amenities, transport and infrastructure. They also requested that the Hindu system of Vastu Shastra be observed (similar to the Oriental system of feng shui, it guides the location and orientation of plots, buildings and structures for greater prosperity).
From the government’s point of view, the master plan had a wider mission – to create a smart, resilient and sustainable urban city with world-class infrastructure and efficiency.
There was also the pressing deadline – the farmers were promised the master plan within six months and title deeds for their revised plots in 36 months.
Surbana Jurong came up with not one but three master plans as roadmaps, to build and grow the capital city and its surrounds at three levels of development.
By 2015, the farmers were called back to view the master plan and study their options. Looking at the plans, they saw how their capital city, bordered by the glistening River Krishna, spoke of promise.
As for the returnable plots, a lottery was conducted to release the newly crafted land parcels – the farmers received residential and commercial land use plots ranging from 25sqm to 25,000sqm, in prime areas in the capital city, which were smaller plots than what they gave up but at a higher land value.
The zone itself sat within a megacity connected by transport grids and high-speed rail to regional centres, development corridors, an inland waterway, industrial clusters, and a future airport.
The impact was instant. Demand for their land shot up and prices started to climb. In the villages of Uddandarayunipalem and Ananthavaram, for example, villagers reported land values rising by five times. Since 2015, many homes have changed hands and developments are going up at a steady clip.
A villager in Ananthavaram noted how pre-2014 construction in his village was slow, with 10 single-storey buildings completed at any time. Today, there are numerous under construction, some up to six storeys high. He also counted 50 cars in the village, when cars were a rare sight before.
There are also the immaterial benefits. The villagers know that their farming days are numbered with a shortage of labour, but looking at the medium-term plans of 20 years that Surbana Jurong has laid out for Amaravati, they felt assured that their children, many of whom are well-educated and wish for urban lives away from the farms, would be able to find good jobs more easily in the city.
Many villagers Surbana Jurong spoke to are happy with the value they reaped from the land-pooling exchange.
Says Mr Ganji Naidu from Rayapudi village, “With the sale of land, thanks to the increase in land value, I bought a new home, deposited some money in the bank and am currently working as a contractor in the capital city. I am very happy that I am able to upgrade my life in just a year.”
The people have spoken and the city they staked their future on is slowly but surely taking shape before their eyes. Says Mr Narasimha Rao from Venkatapalem village, “Our next generation will reap the benefits of the capital city. We want to ensure it’s a world-class city.”