The three-capitals conundrum, which began a few months after Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his YSRCP took power in May 2019, continues — with no immediate end in sight.
The matter is in the Supreme Court and the next hearing is scheduled for 31 January.
The three-capitals plan is inspired by South Africa, a country that has no legally defined capital city. And the three branches of the South African government are located in three different cities of three different provinces.
Cape Town (in the Western Cape province), where Parliament is situated, is the legislative capital. Pretoria (Gauteng Province), where the President and Cabinet are based, is the administrative capital. And Bloemfontein (Free State), seat of the Supreme Court, is the judicial capital.
Birth of the 3-capitals idea
It was on 17 December, 2019, during the winter session of the state Assembly, that Chief Minister Jagan first floated the idea of three capitals for Andhra Pradesh on the lines of the South African model.
Touting decentralised governance and equitable development of all regions the state as the aim, he proposed three capitals for post-bifurcation Andhra Pradesh, which had lost Hyderabad to the newly-formed Telangana in 2014.
Visakhapatnam was to be executive capital where the chief minister, the Cabinet and the bureaucracy would sit. Amaravati in Palnadu district was to be the legislative capital, seat of the Assembly, and Kurnool would host the Andhra Pradesh High Court and be the judicial capital.
The announcement triggered a storm of protests.
For one, it effectively killed the grandiose “Super City” greenfield capital that had been proposed by the earlier TDP government of N Chandrababu Naidu, which had even floated global tenders for the construction of the futuristic seat of power. TDP cadres went on the warpath.
More importantly, there were massive protests by the farmers of Amaravati who had been persuaded to give away their fertile agricultural lands for the proposed capital on the banks of the Krishna river.
As part of an innovative land-pooling scheme, the TDP government had promised great returns to the farmers. But with capital set to be trifurcated and truncated, they feared that the promised development, and the resultant increase in land values, would not happen.
To counter the criticism and to get the heft of expert opinion behind his unusual plan, Jagan first appointed an expert committee to study the issue. The committee, headed by retired IAS officer GN Rao, endorsed the plan.
Soon after, Jagan also roped in the well-regarded Boston Consultancy Group, or BCG, one of the Big Three international consulting firms (the other two being McKinsey & Company and Bain & Company).
BCG was tasked with studying the overall development of the state, including the capital region, and recommend growth and development strategies. It was also asked to look into the distributed capital model and share learning from international case studies.
BCG noted that countries/states consider distributed capitals to address regional aspirations, enabling ease of coordination between government bodies, minimising cost of capital set-up, and enabling ease of citizen access to government services, as in Germany and South Korea.
BCG listed the relative advantages and disadvantages of the distributed capital model with the separation of the judiciary, legislature and executive across Kurnool, Amaravati, and Vishakhapatnam.
On 29 December, 2019, Jagan appointed a 16-member, high-powered committee to study the recommendations of the GN Rao committee and well as the report by BCG.
Ministers and senior officials were members of the high-powered committee which was headed by the then chief secretary Nilam Sawhney. The high-powered committee found merit in both reports.
…and two legislations
With the two high profile endorsements, the Jagan government introduced two separate Bills in the state Assembly in January 2020.
The Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, was to be the law to establish three capital cities for the state, while the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (Repeal) Bill, 2020, would disband the authority, the APCRDA, created by the Chandrababu Naidu government to execute the project to develop Amaravati as the capital.
While both Bills were passed by the state Assembly on 20 January, 2020, they were stalled amidst high drama in the Upper House, the Legislative Council, where the TDP still enjoyed a majority.
In June 2020, the Jagan government reintroduced the two Bills in the state Assembly and got them passed again.
Though the Council stalled the Bills again and recommended them to a Select Committee, the officials of the state legislature stymied them on procedural grounds.
Finally, on 31 July, 2020, Governor Biswa Bhushan Harichandan gave his consent to the Bills, which then became Acts.
Amaravati farmers move the HC
This is when the matter became entangled in a legal quagmire, as the aggrieved farmers of Amaravati moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court challenging both the Acts.
A division bench of the high court, headed by former chief justice JK Maheshwari, took up the matter in August 2020 and ordered that status quo be maintained, effectively stopping the Jagan government’s three-capitals plan in its tracks.
While the bench headed by Justice Maheshwari heard the matter at length, he was elevated to the Supreme Court in January 2021, before a verdict could be delivered.
The petitions then came up before a bench headed by the new chief justice, Arup Kumar Goswami. But this bench could not immediately take up the matter due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The hearing was postponed twice and was finally posted for 15 November, 2021, but Justice Goswami was transferred as chief justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court on 9 October.
Killing the Bills
Even as the petitions of the Amaravati farmers were being heard in the high court, in an sudden and unexpected move the YSRCP government announced the withdrawal of the two contentious legislations pertaining to the creation of three capitals and the abolition of the APCRDA.
A Bill repealing the earlier two legislations was passed by both the houses of the state legislature on
25 November, 2021.
While repealing both the bills, Chief Minister Jagan Reddy told the Assembly that his government would soon bring a better and more comprehensive Bill to replace the two earlier Bills.
The new Bill, he said, would address all issues and assuage all doubts that some sections of people may have over the three-capitals plan — and also withstand legal scrutiny.
High court nixes 3-capitals plan
After the transfer of Justice Goswami, the petitions of the Amaravati farmers were placed before a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra.
On 3 March this year, a three-judge bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court delivered a ruling that stunned the Jagan government.
Chief Justice Mishra ordered that Amaravati be developed as the capital of the state — and that too within six months. He said the capital should be built as planned under the APCRDA Act of the previous TDP government.
The bench also held that the Andhra Pradesh Assembly did not have the legislative competence to enact any law on shifting the three organs of the state.
The bench further ordered that the stay given earlier by the high court’s bench headed by the then chief justice Maheswari on shifting government offices from Amaravati to other parts of the state would remain in force.
And now, the Supreme Court
On 17 September, over six months after the high court struck down its three-capital plan, the Jagan Reddy government finally approached the Supreme Court on the subject.
The government filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the apex court challenging the high court’s order, which upheld Amaravati as the only capital of Andhra Pradesh. The petition claimed the order undermined the government’s legislative competence to change the state’s capital.
In the petition, the government said that if a state, reorganised in pursuance of Central legislation under Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution, was held to be without the power to reorganise its capital, it would be against the federal structure of the Constitution.
The petition came up for hearing before a Supreme Court bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna on 28 November.
The two-judge bench stayed the order by the Andhra Pradesh High Court — issued on 3 March — directing the state government to develop Amaravati as the capital city within six months.
The bench also said it would examine the legal questions involved in the matter — including the legislative competence of the state government to decide on its capitals — at its next hearing, scheduled for 31 January 2023.
“We are hopeful of a favourable outcome,” said Andhra Pradesh government advisor and close Jagan aide Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy.
“We are very clear in our intent. It is in the interest of decentralisation and the balanced development and growth of all the regions of the state that our government proposed the three-capitals plan. We will wait till 31 January and proceed further based on the outcome,” he added.