Delhi Diary: Building A 'Happy City' In India's South

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By Shakir Husain
Shakir Husain, Bernama’s correspondent in New Delhi shares his take from the Indian sub-continent.

AMARAVATI, (India), April 16 (Bernama) -- Hyderabad is a thriving hub of commerce, culture and technology in southern India serving as the common capital of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Under the Andhra Pradesh bifurcation plan of 2014, Hyderabad was given to the newly-created state of Telangana, and Andhra has 10 years to find another place to make its new capital. Nara Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh's chief minister, describes the situation at that time as a "crisis" that presented no easy solutions.

Instead of choosing an existing city as its seat of administration, Andhra Pradesh decided to build a brand new capital, located some 300 kilometres from Hyderabad.

To put things into perspective for Malaysian readers, Amaravati is the southern Indian state's own version of Putrajaya.

Indeed, Putrajaya is one of the places Andhra officials visited overseas to learn from different experiences in urban development.

British construction consultants, Dutch water management experts and Singaporean town planners are among several foreign entities working on the Amaravati project, which is spread over an area of 217 square kilometres.

A Malaysian company has signed an agreement to set up a fourth-generation technology park there.

It is still initial days for infrastructure works in Amaravati, but Andhra Pradesh is keen to showcase its vision to the world.

The idea is to create India's "most livable and happy" city that benchmarks itself against top global places in work and living standards.

The government will set up a happiness commission and create an index to measure happiness.

What Naidu saw as a crisis four years ago is today viewed as an opportunity.

"It is a very rare opportunity (to develop a greenfield capital city)," Naidu said at the inaugural "Happy Cities Summit" organised last week by his government near Amaravati.

A group of journalists, including Bernama, were invited by the state administration to attend the summit and witness the fast-paced execution of development plans on the ground.

Naidu spoke of the new capital as a futuristic place that would become an "innovation valley" ala Silicon Valley in the US and serve as a model of development for others.

E-governance, green transport, non-polluting industries, and advanced education and healthcare facilities are among his top priorities.

It is a city not designed for cars though as 80 per cent of its projected population of 3.5 million by 2050 will rely on public transport and all buses will be electric.

Amaravati derives its name from the nearby ancient town of the same name in the Vijayawada-Guntur region.

The Krishna river, one of India's longest, will not only be a source of water for the city but 30 kilometers of space along its banks will have a mix of real estate developments.

The construction principle adopted by the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA), the agency overseeing the Amravati project, calls for access to critical services like police and hospitals within a walking distance of five minutes, availability of community facilities in 10 minutes, and the location of workplaces no more than 15 minutes away.

Amaravati promises futuristic urban living compared with most of India's cities that present a picture of polluted chaos and poor infrastructure.

To be future-ready, its transport planning has provision for autonomous vehicles and significant use of solar energy.

"This is going to be a zero-carbon footprint city. We have imbibed these things in our planning," APCRDA commissioner Sreedhar Cherukuri said.

Infrastructure works worth around US$3 billion (RM11.6 billion) are in progress and many buildings, including apartments for state legislators, government housing blocks, schools, hospitals and hotels will be ready next year.

An interim government complex that houses the state assembly, chief minister's office, a high-tech call centre, and several ministries is already functional.

The permanent secretariat buildings, the state legislature, and the high court will be built later and these are designed to be the most iconic structures in Amaravati.

"The cost of developing infrastructure is estimated around 1 trillion rupees (RM58 billion) of which the first phase will need about $6.5 billion (RN25 billion)," Cherukuri said.

Andhra Pradesh is upset at not getting the federal financing it said was promised in 2014, but that has not deterred at the APCRDA from pursuing its projects and finding new ways to generate funds.

It has intensified engagement with investors both in India and abroad to realise the huge scale of residential, commercial and industrial projects it is planning.

An early breakthrough came about when more than 27,000 farming families gave up their agricultural land for the new capital.

In return, the farmers are treated as "development partners" and more than 60,000 land plots have been given to them.

The state government also decided to leave 29 villages "untouched" in the area. Amenities and common infrastructure for village residents will be modernised so that they can be incorporated into the "happy city" model.

Nara Lokesh, Naidu's son and rural development and information technology minister, told the visiting journalists: "There is no state moving at our pace."

He points out several achievements Andhra Pradesh has notched up in its goal to become the top state in India, surpassing places like Gujarat and Maharashtra in gross domestic product (GDP) size.

"We have overtaken Telangana in GDP. We are going to compete with Maharashtra," he said.

With a GDP of $130 billion (RM505 billion), Andhra Pradesh, home to 50 million people, faces an uphill task to beat the western state of Maharashtra, whose capital Mumbai has an economy of $400 billion (RM1.5 trillion).

However, Lokesh is confident about Andhra's economic rise and its attractiveness to investors.

Citing an example, he said 80 per cent of foreign direct investment India received in the automobile sector in the last four years was destined for Andhra Pradesh.

The state plans to set up 100 special trade zones for activities ranging from jewellery to building materials and 70 per cent of them will be located in coastal areas.

This is Andhra's way of making up for the loss of Hyderabad.