[For years, emotions dominated the debate over whether to split Andhra Pradesh. It was a battle of haves and have-nots that drove activists from the poorer Telangana region to set themselves on fire, politicians to fast for days and poets to write verses in favor of a separate state. Politicians from the relatively prosperous coastal area of Andhra Pradesh opposed the split — in anticipation, some have suggested, of the loss of hefty revenues from Hyderabad — and literally came to blows in Parliament in February with those backing the bill for the split.]
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
— In this belt of
villages near the fertile India delta, much is as it has been for generations: The
cotton soil is as black, the mango trees as heavy with fruit, the tobacco
fields as fragrant and deeply green as ever. Krishna
But there have been curious changes in recent months. An old temple has received an expensive renovation, complete with a new banquet hall, courtesy of community donors. Some plots once tilled by small farmers lie untended, nothing more than overgrown grazing fields for cattle. Locals say “For Sale” signs have been replaced by “No Sale” signs as farmers try to fend off a rush of buyers who seem to have appeared overnight.
As for who the buyers are, theories abound. At markets and at stalls, people rattle off the names of politicians who reportedly visit late at night to survey a property undetected. They wonder if the recently retired cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar really bought 100 acres in a nearby town, as the newspapers say.
At first glance, these mango groves in the middle of nowhere seem an unlikely spot for a speculation boom. But in June, after years of impassioned debate,
split Andhra Pradesh, a large state in southern India , in two, creating India ’s 29th state, Telangana. The new state will keep the
ancient city of India as its capital, so what is now Andhra Pradesh will
eventually need a new capital, and these tiny villages could end up on the
outskirts of what might be a sprawling Hyderabad . new city
, the politically connected seem to have a knack for
buying land at just the right moment. Privy to government decisions about
zoning or development, they are often accused of acquiring land near a planned development
or using clout to get land rezoned, ending up with a windfall. India
In Andhra Pradesh, the location of the new capital has become an opportunity, especially in and around the roughly 25-mile stretch between two towns: the trading town of
and the tobacco fields near Vijayawada , each strongholds of politically connected castes. Guntur
Agiripalli and the villages surrounding it have the advantage of being just outside
, where land holdings are dominated by the caste to which
the business-friendly chief minister Chandrababu Naidu belongs. Mr. Naidu — who
has earned global fame through pro-market policies, which are credited with
building Hyderabad into the information technology metropolis it is today — has hinted to
local media that the capital will be somewhere in the stretch of Vijayawada and
Guntur. Opposition to this plan emerged last week when an advisory committee
recommended several alternative locations to the central government, according
to local reports. Vijayawada
Ram Babu Nardala, 31, a mango and rice farmer, has positioned himself as the village real estate broker in recent months, an intermediary between farmers and shadowy buyers from town.
Mr. Nardala does not know if this expanse of fields will become the new capital, but he does know that business is good. He spends his mornings managing his crop, then drives his new sport utility vehicle, with the chief minister’s party flag on the hood, to a small pillared shack nestled among banyan trees that line the main road. This unassuming space is the spot where many real estate deals in the village are negotiated.
“I have a circle of people in
,” he said, periodically reaching into his jeans pocket
to quiet his ringing cellphone, “and I keep getting offers.” Vijayawada
He recently oversaw the sale of an acre of farmland belonging to his brother-in-law and said the deal brought in nearly $180,000 from a
buyer he would describe only as a businessman. Vijayawada
“If you’re farming on it,” he said, “you won’t even earn 50,000 rupees,” or around $800.
The documents he drew up to register the sale show a price that is much lower, he acknowledged. He has arranged eight deals in recent months, he said, some to buyers who have told him to help them flip the land for a higher price. Many say that the beneficiaries of the speculation are not likely to be the farmers, who sell for relatively low prices. Nor will the government benefit, since it misses out on crucial tax revenue by turning a blind eye to off-the-book sales and illegal construction of housing and apartments on land zoned for agriculture.
For years, emotions dominated the debate over whether to split Andhra Pradesh. It was a battle of haves and have-nots that drove activists from the poorer Telangana region to set themselves on fire, politicians to fast for days and poets to write verses in favor of a separate state. Politicians from the relatively prosperous coastal area of Andhra Pradesh opposed the split — in anticipation, some have suggested, of the loss of hefty revenues from Hyderabad — and literally came to blows in Parliament in February with those backing the bill for the split.
For Andhra Pradesh, which will need an influx of industry after losing
, the Vijayawada-Guntur corridor represents an imperfect
“I know for a fact that politicians are buying land there,” said Anant Maringanti, the director of Hyderabad Urban Lab, an urban research program. “They’ll build real estate or high-value apartments. I don’t know if that’s really going to jump-start the economy.”
And despite the optimism, a bubble is a bubble, even for locals unfamiliar with the term. One resident compared the astronomically rising land prices to a pot of milk on the burner: quick to boil up, and, once the heat dies down, just as quick to vanish into nothing.
“There has been no government announcement,” said Ponnaiah Krupam, a mango farmer with 10 acres of land and a small store near the main road. “I don’t understand what’s happening. I’m too afraid to sell.”
Naveen Surya, an infrastructure developer based in
, tried to buy half an acre near Hyderabad and quickly abandoned the enterprise, daunted by the
competition which he believes comes from politicians and the politically
connected. By his calculation, the prices offered for this agricultural land in
an undeveloped area are exorbitant. Vijayawada
“It’s mafia land — they’re buying, not registering the land, paying advances, and they want to trade it,” he said. “Everyone is running behind easy money. That’s what real estate is.”
Land prices just outside the district’s bustling headquarters,
, are rising more dramatically still. Lagadapati
Rajagopal, a former Congress Party parliamentarian from Vijayawada who earned his fortune through construction and his
notoriety through using pepper spray during a particularly contentious
parliamentary hearing on the split, views its aftermath with something akin to
His company’s name is emblazoned on billboards and roundabouts throughout
. As a member of Parliament in 2007, he oversaw the
development and plotting of 150 acres of farmland near town. The land value was
around $5 million, he said. A year ago, he could imagine its value at close to
$100 million. Today, with the speculation over the capital, he cannot imagine
its price. Vijayawada
“It’s good for farmers, and it’s good for the government,” said Mr. Rajagopal. “You can sell part of your land and still make a killing.”
How good rampant speculation will be for farmers in Agiripalli and for the development of the state remains to be seen.
Hari Babu Matcha, a farmer near Agiripalli, has invested in a change. He is now in the business of plotting land. He and a group of partners have bought 13 acres of paddy in Agiripalli, planted grass in its place, installed a paved road and a gate, distinguishing it from the surrounding rice fields. He hopes to see it become a gated community of 300 houses for government employees, teachers and a professional class he is betting will flock to the area. More than half of the plots have been sold, but so far, the frame of just one house has been built, little more than a roof supported by wooden beams in a vast field of numbered, empty plots.
Mr. Matcha expressed ambivalence about a sweeping change in the region, as do many other farmers, even though he expects to benefit from it.
“First they developed
, and Telangana farmers were totally corrupted,” he said,
citing an influx of five-star hotels and a wave of farmers buying new cars,
drinking away their days. “Now, this disease will affect our soil,” he said,
then added, after a pause, “but it depends on the capital.” Hyderabad
Sriram Karri contributed reporting.