Can Amaravati set land pooling example for a city built from scratch?

Is it possible to ‘pool land’, share it as a common resource and build an entire city on this ideal imagination? Divya Dua looks at the Amaravati model and what it has to offer.

Gone are the stormy days of bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh and the bitter battles over the city of Hyderabad. Today, as Telangana is governed from its centre of power in Hyderabad, neighbouring Andhra waits eagerly for the completion of its planned seat of administration, Amaravati.  

In the government’s own words, Amaravati, “the People’s capital of Andhra Pradesh, is envisioned to be a city of world-class standards” and one that will provide “cutting-edge infrastructure, comfortable livelihood and immense prosperity”.

However, most remarkable about this planned city, being developed from scratch, is the way it has been built on land pooled as a common, shared resource – a model that could potentially become an ideal in a country grappling with the demands of urbanization on the one hand, and concerns over land acquisition and fair compensation on the other.

Pooling vs acquisition

Amaravati as it exists today is a result of 33,000 acres of land ‘pooled’ in by the state government from individual farmers from Vijayawada and Thullur along the banks of the Krishna river. The city is being hailed as a ground-breaking experiment in land acquisition that can prove to be mutually beneficial to both the state and the farmers.

The system is unique in its functioning in that it takes stock of interest of all the various stakeholders involved. Under this system, the preexisting land owners or occupants of the land voluntarily handover and sign ownership rights over to the government agency managing land transfers in that area.

The agency’s job then is to build roads and lay sewage lines and provide residents with electricity connections. Once that is done, the agency returns a smaller, predetermined portion of the now developed area to the original occupants.

Land owners primarily stand to benefit from this scheme on two premises: first, the area once developed will have better amenities to improve the standard of living of its residents; secondly, on account of these amenities, the price of the land would rise to match the market value of the owner’s original holding.

Land pooling thus changes the medium of exchange, making land, and not money, the primary medium. In cases of land acquisition, authorities would normally compensate the land owners by paying three or four times the registered value of the land and not its market value. This has in the past made acquiring land from plot owners very difficult. The difference between the two sums would be huge in most cases, and thus the land owners would not get a fair deal, leading to controversy and conflict. The model of pooling land clearly preempts that.

Land pooling: A win-win for all?

The results of land pooling in Amaravati are yet to be gauged with certainty. However, several positive developments have been promised to the people, such as the provision of old age homes, canteens for the poor (named after Nandamuri Taraka Ramarao, founder of Telugu Desam Party), a pension of 2,500 per month to landless families and tenant farmers for 10 years, free education, free healthcare, round-the-year implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for agricultural labour, and skill development centers for unemployed youth, to name a few.

Political experts say that one of the things that has ensured smooth acquisition under the pooling scheme is Chandrababu Naidu’s political ingenuity in terms of choosing the area wisely for building the capital city. The centre has also approved of the scheme as it does not require the usage of the land acquisition act that has often attracted scrutiny and criticism over the compensation clauses. The owners, who have given up their land for the development of this ‘green-field’ city, have been exempted from the capital gains tax generally levied on such transfer of land.

However, the system has not been free of criticism and has met with stiff opposition from some quarters, as this report indicates. While the government had notified 29 villages of Thulluru, Tadepalli and Mangalagiri mandals for the collection of lands from farmers, the villages in Tadepalli and Mangalagiri have been resisting the pooling system. Locals in Undavalli and Penumaka villages of Tadepalli mandal, and Yerrupalem and Bethapudi of Mangalagiri mandal have demonstrated with banners, refusing to part with their lands. Several of them approached the courts against land pooling, while some of them have not submitted the required papers giving consent to the land pooling system.

It has also been pointed out that this take-over of land, voluntary as the handover may have been, comes at a great cost to the vibrant agro-economy of the area. According to this report in The Wire, the land chosen for Amaravati yields Rs 1000 crore per year and has complete linkages from the farm to the market. This had helped and encouraged women entrepreneurs. Farmers in the 29 villages are said to grow three or more crops annually in its rich soil and more than 120 varieties in total. Even marginal farmers who owned half an acre or less have been known to earn more than Rs 30,000 each month. The destruction of the Krishna floodplain for the construction of Amaravati would spell doom for this local economy and its livelihoods.

Other land-pooling experiments

While the opposition to land pooling continues, it must be noted that Amaravati is not the first city to adopt this system in India. Several states in India have adopted land pooling methods for different types of projects over the years.

Considering land acquisition as “the biggest hurdle” to various projects, the highways department of Tamil Nadu is known to have considered the strategic concept of land pooling for its road infrastructure projects.

In Gujarat, the early development of infrastructure (roads and water, sewer and electric systems, etc.) is considered the most significant reason behind the landowner support for financially sustainable, politically acceptable and legally defensible projects in regions experiencing rapid urbanization. But even in that state, farmers of the 22 villages of Dholera, the chosen site for the Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR) based on a land-pooling policy, are not convinced.

Meanwhile, the Delhi Development Authority’s land pooling policy has been approved by the government, paving the way for 89 villages to be developed as urban areas.

Thus on the face of it, land pooling seems to offer an effective solution to finding an acceptable strategy of urban development that does not separate people from their place of residence using force and in fact, allows them to enjoy the fruits of development of the acquired land. Whether it can emerge as an ideal, truly equitable model is something that only time will tell.

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