India builds a city from scratch.
One hot February afternoon last year, I climbed into a small white sedan with three government officials to take a quick tour of 35,000 acres of some of the lushest farmland to be found anywhere in India. The location: Andhra Pradesh, a tropical state on the subcontinent’s eastern coast that is often called “the rice bowl of India.” In every direction, crops bulged — coconut and cauliflower and cucumber and more than 80 other varieties of produce that would be trucked to market for hundreds of miles around, or jasmine and marigold and more than 14 other varieties of flower that would be strung and sold as garlands.
The officials wanted me to imagine this land replaced by a futuristic megacity called Amaravati. By 2035, they projected, it would be home to 11 million people and cover 3,322 square miles — ten times the area of New York City. The government had already acquired 90 percent of the land they’d need for the first major phase of the project, and as we drove farther, the fields were increasingly brown and fallow, because the government had already started paying the farmers to cease farming.
We stopped the car in the middle of an abandoned field where four months earlier the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, had come to lay the foundation stone for this dream. Standing alongside him, rigid as a soldier, was the man who had dreamed it: Chandrababu Naidu, the ambitious chief minister of the state. Amaravati, Modi told the crowd, will be a benchmark for the development of new cities.
In a tin shed next to the foundation stone, the officials lifted a plastic sheet to show me a remarkable scale model of their plans for this place: block after block of residential high-rises and industrial complexes and stadiums and university campuses, with an elevated metro line looping around them. Little rectangular signs poked up to indicate the specialty of each district: government city, health city, education city. I determined that the spot we were standing on — which until recently had been a banana farm — lay smack in the middle of the projected finance city. A pair of identical skyscrapers were slated to rise on either side of us. “All will be developed,” one official told me. “Total use. No more agriculture.”
We drove on, at one point waiting while an old man in a red dhoti smacked his buffalos on the butt with a long pole to clear them off the road. Our final stop was the one site where construction had begun, less than two weeks before. The crops that once grew here had all been cleared, but no structures had yet arisen. Enormous piling riggers were pounding holes into the earth to hold foundation pillars. The clanging noise and heat were softened by the light; it was the golden hour, and the dreamy glow imbued the place with a sense of magical expectation. Rows of floodlights waited for nightfall. This was a 24-hour operation, an unending cycle of three eight-hour shifts every day until Amaravati was real. These first buildings would serve as a temporary secretariat, and everyone was hustling to be ready for the wave of 6,000 government workers who would shift their offices there in less than four months.
Several curious families from nearby villages had ignored the unauthorized entry restricted sign and stood next to riggers to watch them pound. A man cycled by with an ice cream cart to sell them refreshments for the show. I chatted with one group, and the women told me that until now they’d made their living harvesting cotton and sugarcane. I asked them what kind of work they’d do in the new city. The women all laughed and shook their heads in wonder, as if to say: It’s unimaginable! But no more farming? I asked, and they laughed again: No more, no more!
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.
When India gained independence from the British in 1947, its internal borders were a mess, cutting every which way across the new republic’s endless array of cultural and language groups. There were immediate calls to reorganize the borders along linguistic lines, and the first such new state was Andhra Pradesh, which brought together two regions that both spoke the language Telugu. But the two halves had distinct histories and never got along, arguing over jobs, resources, and identity. These tensions temporarily receded with the rule of N. T. Rama Rao, a movie star turned politician who rose to power on a platform of Telugu pride. In 1995, he was in his third term as chief minister when his son-in-law seized control of the state by way of an internal party coup. The son-in-law was Chandrababu Naidu.
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.
The first time I met Naidu was sudden and startling. I’d just finished meeting the state’s energy secretary, deep within the labyrinth of a government office building, and when I got up to leave, Naidu appeared in the doorway. He was the most alpha male whose hand I’d ever shaken. His bearing is majestic. His eye contact locked me in place. To conceal a pale patch of vitiligo across his chin, he wears a lopsided white goatee, which somehow makes him look even more authoritative. I asked him if we could meet for an interview. His head swiveled toward an assistant and ejected two rich baritone words: “Arrange it.”
Unilateral decree is Naidu’s default mode. Before he resumed office, the Indian government had commissioned a report on the new capital, which recommended decentralizing the capital’s various functions and retrofitting existing cities for whatever the new state needed; Naidu ignored it. The site he chose mostly makes sense. It’s located almost exactly in the center of the state, on the shore of a reliable river, not too far inland from a planned major port, and adjacent to Vijayawada, a small city that serves as the transportation hub for the region. It has history, too. The name Amaravati is borrowed from a nearby village that for millennia has served as a Buddhist site of pilgrimage.
But how is he going to pay for it? The state is reportedly broke. The central Indian government has promised to fund construction of a new state government complex — which is to say much, much less than Naidu has planned. The initial outlay will come via loans: at least a billion dollars from India’s own Housing and Urban Development Corporation, and, if all goes well, a billion from the World Bank, and another half billion from French and Japanese governments toward building the metro. That should last a good two to three years. “Finance is a problem,” K. Venkateshwarlu, editor of the local edition of the Hindu newspaper, told me. “If things don’t fall in place, then he’s doomed.”
When I visited the future Amaravati, I stayed in Vijayawada, the city across the river from the capital-to-be. On many streets, Vijayawada looks like it was built out of rubble, with enough rubble left over for lots of roadside rubble piles of various sizes. But its dilapidation seems entwined with its vigor. Even at 11 p.m. the streets were wonderfully alive: people eating food from carts, or selling bananas, or hanging out and chatting, and on every other block a brightly lit wedding party overflowing with song.
Many have asked why Vijayawada couldn’t just have been refurbished to serve as the capital. The advantages of a “greenfield” project, as cities from scratch are called, are huge. “You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness of laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasília,” the American megabuilder Robert Moses once said. “But when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” Many Indian cities are currently struggling with the logistical agony of adding critical new metro lines to narrow old streets.
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.
“The test of a city is its population,” said S.P. Shorey, an urban planner based in Hyderabad. “In spite of lots of attempts by the government to provide incentives, people generally do not move from older cities to new cities.” There are already two major, well-established, flourishing metropolises just a few hours’ drive from Amaravati. It comes down to culture, he said, which can’t be rushed. “It’s not the fault of Amaravati. It’s a natural process. Forget about employment. You need the entire system of urban amenities to attract people. You need culture not only in the sense of historic culture or cultural heritage but the culture of a place that evolves over a period of 100 years. Clubs are culture. Sports are culture.” In the land where Amaravati is coming up, the overwhelming culture is agriculture. 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.
Naidu and the APCRDA give every impression that they’ve done their homework. They’ve studied the cities named above and visited many more for tips or cautionary tales: Vienna for its safety; Shanghai for its business district; Curitiba, in Brazil, for its rapid bus system; Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates, for its energy management; Ashgabat, in Turkmenistan, simply because, as one official told me, they were intrigued by its reputation as the world’s “weirdest capital.” Skeptics insist that the impression is false. “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Anant Maringanti, director of the Hyderabad Urban Lab, told me. “They propose a wild pipe dream, then pull together all the stakeholders and start winging it.”
I admit that I don’t know whom to believe. When I talk to critics, the whole idea seems like mad folly. When I talk to boosters, it starts to make sense again, and I wonder if I lack vision. But these are early days. It’s difficult to imagine success when nothing’s yet been built. My own skepticism moderates when I think of the growing list of countries that seem eager to endorse Amaravati: Japan, the U.K., China, Russia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, and more have all signaled that they might help build it, or offer it further loans. Clearly they think it has promise as an investment. But no outside country has tethered itself as closely to Amaravati as Singapore, the city-state that serves as its primary inspiration and drew up Amaravati’s master plan.
Singapore is Naidu’s most frequent frame of reference for Amaravati. He often says that his city will be as good as Singapore, or even better (which seems slightly impolite to his collaborators). For developing countries with big urban dreams, the story Singapore tells about itself is irresistible: that it managed to transform from fishing village to model megalopolis within a generation. With this kind of leap in mind and a friendship that dates back to his Cyberabad days, Naidu turned to Singapore when he needed a master planner, and Singapore offered to draw up the plans for free. Andhra Pradesh and Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2014, and Singapore delivered the plans six months later.
“Singapore foreign policy is that we’ll not give money, but we’ll give technical training to any countries that ask for help,” Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, told me when I visited the country last summer. In part this assistance is about diplomacy and fostering international goodwill. It’s also about growing what the Singapore government calls the external wing of the economy. The hope is that Singapore-owned construction companies will be awarded the contracts to build these freely offered plans.
“Singapore not only produced for itself a great city but then fairly soon realized that it had a very valuable commodity: knowledge and experience,” Stephen Cairns, director of the Singapore-based Future Cities Laboratory, told me. “Governments started to beat a path to Singapore’s door saying, ‘How do you do it?’ So Singapore started to marketize its own urban knowledge, including actually planning other cities.”
India and Singapore have ties that go back centuries, and Singapore has a sizable Indian population. On paper they have little else in common. Singapore is a small, orderly, clean, green, rich, urban, efficient, corruption-free authoritarian city-state with few natural resources, almost no agriculture, and a national history that goes back about as far as an airplane seat in coach. India is an enormous, chaotic, inefficient, mostly rural, mostly poor, badly polluted, often corrupt, unceasingly lively democracy whose multifarious histories are among the most ancient we know. India is still a nation of villages; Singapore’s last village is at risk of demolition. Singapore gets its dirty work done by use of tractable foreign migrant labor; India is the land of the nationwide labor strike. India struggles to meet the need for adequate toilets; Singapore will fine you for not flushing.
These distinctions are not destiny, nor do they tell the whole story. When I am in New York City, waiting for a subway in a filthy tunnel without any clue when or even if it will ever arrive, I can only dream of the Delhi Metro: its speed, its silence, its frequency, its near-perfect reliability, and the orderliness and respect its patrons bring to it. “The idea that Asia can’t do good cities — that’s crazy,” Cairns told me. “I think Singapore broke a psychological barrier back in the 1950s and ’60s. Asia doesn’t have to be full of squalor. It doesn’t have to be disorganized and corrupt. We can do it our own way, and we can do it well.”
If anything, the focus of inspiration for what makes a good city has shifted from West to East. For centuries the great cities of Western Europe, and then the big cities of the United States, were the aspirational reference points for any up-and-coming metropolis. Now Asian city planners are mostly seeking models elsewhere in Asia, for the simple reason of scale. “There is no city in Europe that has the density of Bombay or Beijing or Shanghai,” Chua told me. “You use the Amsterdam model, you would be dead. You can no longer look to Europe and America for any lessons.”
But the move from horizontal to vertical living is not merely a spatial transition. It’s a full-on cultural shift, and one that requires a sometimes-wrenching adaptation. Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, the Singapore government distributed to its newest high-rise dwellers a free magazine called Our Home, which explained how to do everything from drying laundry on your balcony without annoying your neighbors to decorating an apartment. “It was about learning how to be modern,” Cairns said. “That has nothing to do with the building design.” The Delhi Metro’s great success can be partly credited to such an initiative; in its first years of operation, the city enlisted volunteers to roam the cars and urge passengers not to, say, sit on the floor.
Singapore hopes to bring a similar approach to Amaravati but on a much bigger scale, establishing standards and processes for Indian officials and training them to build the city the way they’ve designed it. “It’s not just about master planning,” said Khoo Teng Chye, executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, a Singapore government agency that has been closely involved in the Amaravati project. “It’s really about governance. You need to develop the institutions.” They took a similar approach, he said, when they helped build the Chinese city Suzhou — a process they called “software transfer.”
It sounds straightforward. The catch is that Singapore developed the way it did thanks to its unique history and geography, its particular blend of capitalism, nationalization, and authoritarianism, and its culture of cold rationality, none of which India shares. The so-called Singapore model, Chua told me, “is better left unspecific, because once you get concrete, then you realize it’s not doable in a different political culture.” It means little, he said, beyond a visual reference point. Or a cudgel. “Because you can always say, ‘Why can’t we be like Singapore?’ Which is like saying, ‘Why is the government so incompetent?’”
I returned to Andhra Pradesh in June, just before the first set of Amaravati buildings were due to open. There’d been some trouble in the meantime. Two construction workers were killed in separate incidents; after the second death, when a 22-year-old fell into a concrete mixer, the workers rioted and police attacked them with batons. I visited the site with Mallela Seshagiri Rao, a local farmer and engineer who has been a leader of the opposition to the capital plans. The first thing we saw as we approached was an 18-wheel truck stuck in the dirt. Multiple workers were attempting to extract it; not all of them were wearing shoes. The buildings looked months from completion.
“Still, they’re giving statements that in 15 days it will be finished,” Rao said, laughing. “Under Saddam Hussein there was one fellow who was always saying, ‘In another ten hours we are going to smash the U.S. troops and win the war.’ Until he was captured and shot.”
The land where Amaravati is rising includes 29 villages, which as part of Singapore’s plan will stay as they are. To acquire the rest of the land, the APCRDA has taken a novel approach. Instead of purchasing it outright through the land acquisition ordinance — the Indian version of eminent domain — they have used a technique called land pooling, in which the farmers agree to hand over their land in return for a yearly stipend and the eventual return of a smaller but developed plot in the new city. The government touts this as a voluntary process, and while in some cases it has been, the farmers haven’t truly had a choice. The government has made clear that it will acquire by the old method any land that isn’t surrendered through land pooling.
Even with that sword over their heads, some 5 percent of the farmers have held out, and tremendous pressure has been brought to bear on them. Rao told me that in late 2014, before the deadline to sign up for land pooling, several battalions of police, some carrying AK-47s, stationed themselves in the most recalcitrant villages to make their presence felt, sometimes showing up to farmer meetings with video cameras. Several farm fields mysteriously caught fire. According to Rao, the police summoned villagers for questioning, ostensibly about the arson, but asked instead, in interrogation sessions that sometimes lasted until dawn: Why aren’t you giving your land?
One of the most resistant villages is Nidamarru, which is a major supplier of wholesale flower markets throughout Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The plan calls for its fields to be converted into Amaravati’s Electronics City, with the hope that it will become home to IT companies and computer chip manufacturers. One morning I toured the fields of a jasmine farmer named B. Jayama, who employs some 300 local women as pluckers. “These acres are my life,” she told me. She started as a flower plucker herself, saving for decades to buy her 20 acres, and she’s still got the habit; she couldn’t help plucking as she walked. Each group of workers we passed called out to her: Are you going to give up your land? Please don’t give it up! We’re relying on you! “We’ll fight it,” Jayama assured them. “No one is going to take it away from us.” (An APCRDA official told me that the agency will definitely take the Nidamarru fields by acquisition ordinance: “They won’t have any choice.”)
The women were worried that in the new city they’d only find jobs as maids or cleaners, which they keenly wished to avoid. For Jayama, there’s no possible compensation that would make her want to give up her fields; they’ve done well for her. It’s the only life she wants. But it would be a mistake to romanticize Indian agriculture. For most, working small farms is backbreaking labor that often fails even to turn a profit — a big reason so many Indian farmers commit suicide. For the great mass of strugglers, a buyout from the government would be a miracle. The next day I visited Dondapadu, a village where the land isn’t nearly as productive as Nidamarru’s. I asked a resident if he was sorry to leave farming behind. He raised his eyebrows with amusement and pointed out a bright yellow three-story building nearby: his new house, bought with his land-pooling windfall. “I built another for my daughter,” he said. Previously his family had lived in a metal shed. The mood among all the former farmers I met in Dondapadu was downright jubilant. Compared to nearly every other big construction project in Indian history that has required mass dislocation, this one has met with surprisingly little opposition.
But there’s a great deal of uncertainty, even among the happy farmers. Some who volunteered for land pooling have already sold their contracts to real estate brokers, because they want their cash now. Who knows if their promised developed plots will ever come, and what they’ll be? All this new wealth can too be a problem. In an older planned city in North India called Greater Noida, I heard stories of farmers who’d taken buyouts and blown their bounty on SUVs, mega-weddings, and sprawling concrete mansions, sometimes ending up poorer than they began. Once-harmonious villages became bitterly stratified.
In Amaravati, I also heard a lot of suspicion about what Singapore had in mind. Wild rumors circulated that Singapore would be given thousands of acres of land that it can develop, that Naidu is part owner of the Singapore companies bidding to build the city. (Singapore officials deny these claims.) Some resisting farmers complained that Naidu had never once visited their villages, despite living just a few miles away. But what could they say to him that would possibly change his mind?
In interviews, Naidu often speaks with a blend of thoughtful humility and paternalistic certitude. When I finally sat down with him, the humility was not in evidence. Naidu never wavered from his self-presentation as a great man of history. We met in the office of his residence on the banks of the Krishna River. His desk was clear; the only decor was a standing globe at his left. “I’m not thinking today and tomorrow,” he said in his gruff rumble. “Thousands of years, for future generations. I want to stretch my capacity beyond my limitations.”
I asked why he’d opted for this megacity instead of the much more modest decentralized plan recommended by the central government. “You can tell me: Has any country anywhere been popular without cities?” he asked. “India, why is it so popular? There is Bombay, there is Delhi, there is Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore. Because of all these cities. Why have they built Dubai? Why have they built London? Where are they getting employment? Where are they getting money?”
I started to say that I’d spoken to a lot of farmers, and he interrupted with a laugh: “You’ve done better than me,” he said. “For a greater cause, in the public interest, they have to support.” I asked him if he knew about the police intimidation I’d heard of. “No, I didn’t,” he said, “but I’m asking you: The majority told you they have given voluntarily? That is the spirit that is important.
“I’m asking people to raise their vocation,” he said. “Don’t go for physical work. I’m asking you, use your brains. Do creative work and we can do wonders, within no time, with the country watching. I’ve got no money, but I have ideas and willingness. Finances are always the constraint. There is no limitation for creativity.”
In December, Naidu selected Norman Foster, the British starchitect, as the master designer of Amaravati’s 900-acre core capitol complex. It’s an unsurprising choice in that it reflects the sort of international pedigree and publicity Naidu seeks. It’s an odd choice in that Foster’s other ongoing planned-city experiment — the ostensibly carbon-neutral Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates — is 15 years behind schedule and nearly empty of people; it’s unclear if it will ever be finished.
Amaravati’s temporary secretariat, that first set of buildings I saw under construction last year, is now complete: 45 acres outfitted with offices, paved for parking, and wired for broadband, just as Naidu envisioned it. These buildings now serve as the state’s legislative assembly and executive headquarters — an administrative island in an ocean of open fields. But the usual impediments to construction in India, bureaucracy and court challenges, have stalled further progress, and the monsoon rains will soon return to Andhra Pradesh, preparing the soil for crops that will never again grow. On the remaining tens of thousands of acres that the state has collected to make its leap into the future, everything is still possible.