AMARAVATI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As big plans and intricate models were made for a new city in south India, officials struggled to communicate their vision to thousands of farmers who gave up land for the decades-long, multi-billion dollar project.
So last November, they flew a group of them to Singapore to see the city that the new state capital is modeled after - a modern, high-tech hub with eco-friendly features that also offers economic opportunities.
Amaravati, which means “place of immortals”, is being built in an area of 217 sq km (84 sq miles) - about the size of Seattle - along the banks of the Krishna River in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh.
It is the country’s first greenfield capital in decades, and is being hailed as a viable option to the polluted, congested cities that are often seen as failures of urban planning.
“Our cities are becoming less efficient, less sustainable, less liveable, even as India grows in stature,” said Sreedhar Cherukuri, commissioner of the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which is overseeing the project.
“You rarely get a clean canvas to develop a city from scratch. We decided that rather than rejig a city, we would create one that is sustainable, meets global standards for liveability, and is a growth engine,” he said in his office.
But while Amaravati is being hailed as an exciting new blueprint, officials are also being criticized for ignoring protests of farmers unwilling to give up land, and the ecological impact of building on farmland close to the river.
It has also re-kindled the debate on purpose-built cities, which have a mixed record, from ancient Constantinople to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw inaugurated in 2005.
Andhra Pradesh lost its capital, Hyderabad, to neighboring Telangana when the latter state was created in 2014.
Led by Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu - credited with transforming Hyderabad into a tech hub for global giants such as Microsoft and Amazon - officials in Andhra Pradesh moved quickly, picking a location for the new capital within months.
A draft master plan by the Singaporean consultancy firm Surbana Jurong was approved in July 2015, and a final plan approved in Feb. 2016.
Dubbed “the people’s capital”, Amaravati is being built in three phases, with the first phase scheduled to conclude in 2020, and the second phase running till 2035.
The final phase ends 2050, when CRDA estimates the “blue-green” city - for the river and the planned green spaces - will house about 3.5 million people, up from 100,000 now.
The project has drawn big global names including British architects Foster and Partners, and Dutch design and consultancy firm Arcadis.
But as countries from South America to the Middle East and Asia rush to build new cities that are “green, smart, and modern”, there is little regard for marginalized communities, said Kris Hartley, a professor at the University of Melbourne.
With more control ceded to developers and technology firms, public interest - including environmental protection, public space, and access to quality infrastructure and services - is at risk, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Aside from some - debatable - progress in efficiency, energy reduction, or aesthetically attractive space, there is no reform of governance or effort to reverse the loss of power individuals have to shape their own communities,” he said.
“Developing countries are particularly vulnerable,” said Hartley, who is also a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank.
All decisions related to Amaravati are made with the aim of improving people’s lives, Cherukuri said.
To hasten a process of acquiring land, which can often be delayed because of disagreements over compensation, officials opted to use land pooling, a strategy that had never been attempted on that scale in India before.
Land pooling enables the quick consolidation of small land holdings. Owners get back a share of developed land, while the state keeps the remainder for its use.
For Amaravati, some 31,000 acres (12,545 hectares) of land was pooled from about 26,000 farmers in just two months, Cherukuri said. The remainder of the land is being acquired.
To sweeten the deal, owners were offered a pension for up to 10 years, free education and healthcare. Still, not everyone was happy, and farmers in several villages staged protests.
Authorities ignored suggestions for “alternative locations that cause least human displacement, least disruption to agriculture and ecology,” said E.A.S. Sarma, an activist and former bureaucrat who filed a petition against the project.
“By rushing into locating the capital city in an area that contained fertile agricultural land, the state has caused irreparable damage to the economy,” he said.
Sarma’s petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a government agency, said the project must be shelved until an environment assessment is done, as the site is prone to flooding.
The NGT ruled last November that construction could go on, and set up a monitoring committee.
Visitors to Amaravati now drive on a single-lane road flanked by rice paddies and sugarcane fields to arrive at a cluster of low-rise buildings that are temporary administration offices.
Modern flood management systems are being installed in Amaravati, and eco-friendly features such as roof-top solar panels and a ban on petrol and diesel vehicles are planned, Cherukuri said.
More than 40 percent of land area is reserved for public spaces, while 5 percent of net developable area is earmarked for affordable housing, he said.
Despite considerations such as these, the commercialization of urban space means these projects only really create value for corporations and only cater to the “top economic shelf of society”, said Hartley.
“(But) planned cities will need to be judged on far more than shareholder returns: governments ignore the plight of the marginalized at their peril,” he said.
As for the farmers who visited Singapore last year, many came back with ideas of their own for their land, said Cherukuri.
“Many of them - their children are abroad or are not interested in farming, so they must look at other options,” he said.
“Being part of something like this - this is the future.”
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.