Lee Kuan Yew, who created Singapore in his image, would have been delighted at the newly consolidated partnership between his city-state and Andhra Pradesh. He had been urging India to engage in South-east Asia since the 1950s but it was not until P V Narasimha Rao announced his Look East policy that any Indian leader responded. Condoling his death in 2015, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, praised Lee’s leadership and far-sightedness in turning Singapore around from ruin after World War II and given it a separate destiny from Malyasia’s.
Mr Chandrababu Naidu has always been popular with Singaporeans. Lee Kuan Yew’s son and Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, spoke with respect of him when he was out of office, saying he had “transformed Hyderabad and would have transformed the state but the rural population voted him out”. He was younger than most Indian politicians of similar status, ambitious and articulate. Armed always with a laptop, he personified modernity.
Singapore responded enthusiastically to his request for help in drafting a core capital region near Vijayawada after Telengana separated, doing the job for free. In Singapore last year to participate in the World Cities Summit Mayors’ Forum, Mr Chandrababu Naidu told listeners, “The best cities in the world will be from India, and Amaravati will be one among the top five in the world.” He meant his state’s proposed Rs 58,000-crore project for a 217 sq km greenfield city on the Krishna river. He promises it will be a world-class capital.
The proposal gains from the guidance of Singapore’s veteran business entrepreneur and ambassador-at-large, Gopinath Pillai, who has been appointed special envoy to Andhra Pradesh. Mr Pillai’s father, K S Pillai, ran the only Malayalam daily, Kerala Bandhu, published outside India. His mother, Malati, was a prominent social worker and political activist in Singapore.
Together with its two ethnic Indian partners, Sat Pal Khattar and Haider Sithawalla, Mr Pillai has developed extensive business interests in India, especially in IT, freight, storage and transport. That experience is expected to ensure that the Amaravati project does not go the way of other high profile mega schemes that Singaporeans have tried to launch in India.
The first was the “Madras Corridor” which would have been an exclusive manufacturing zone for Singaporean investors. Then came Singapore Airlines’ proposed airbridge as an all-inclusive tourism package direct from Europe or the US to relatively small Indian airports serving clusters of tourist destinations. Several Singapore companies wanted a bite when Bangalore’s new international airport was announced.
Finally, the end of Indian Airlines’ monopoly encouraged SIA and Tata to set up a company in Mauritius for a S$846-million joint venture domestic airline. There was talk of special export-oriented economic zones, sparkling new townships, schools, colleges, banks, and training institutes. More Indian firms would follow Tatas and Punj Lloyd in acquiring companies in Singapore.
Later, the “pre-establishment” clause of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement signed in 2005 entitling Singapore-registered enterprises to be treated at par with Indian companies whetted hopes of “a larger process of Asian integration” that would attract floods of investment funds from abroad. Singapore would enjoy permanent middleman’s fees as bilateral trade soared to more than US$50 billion by 2010.
Discussing these failed visions, Mr Lee Hsien Loong told me once, “We don’t need flagship projects.” Others explained that high visibility means politicisation that feeds into the instinctive suspicion of foreigners and foreign money that India’s ultra-nationalists exploit for their own ends.
The exception was the one-stop S$250-million Bangalore Information Technology Park housing international high-tech companies involved in computers, electronics and telecommunications. It is still the relationship’s principal showpiece. Amaravati could well be the second.
So it was no surprise that Singapore’s minister of national development, Lawrence Wong, warmed to Mr Chandrababu Naidu’s project, saying that the greenfield city — whose master plan the Singaporeans had completed in record time — provided a golden opportunity for well-planned growth.
Appreciating the uniqueness of the land pooling scheme in Amaravati, Mr Wong added that the project had made good progress and that Singapore was willing to supply the latest technology and ideas. “Many ministers from Singapore have visited India recently and are very happy with the growth and the potential of growth. We want a population in Amaravati as we have noticed that the progress of building the city is very good,” Mr Wong added.
For Mr Chandrababu Naidu Amaravati will not be just an administrative headquarters. It will also be an economic hub. “It is a people’s capital. We are still overcoming the disadvantages of bifurcation,” he says, explaining that Amaravati will be inclusive of all sections of society. He has a theory that by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population will be urban, mainly residing in Asia and Africa.
“Our state is still overcoming difficulties and working towards our vision of being one of the best destinations by 2050. We have been maintaining a double-digit growth consistently, and we are the number one in Ease of Doing Business. We are working with goals, like a well-established power grid, water grid, fibre grid, trunk infrastructure and more. We are providing reliable power at reasonable cost and this will help us nurture a manufacturing hub in our state,” he claims.
Also claiming that Amaravati will have an advanced transport infrastructure, the chief minister says, “Our formula is the 5-10-15 minute policy for Amaravati. People should reach their destinations in five minutes for an emergency, 10 minutes for social infrastructure and 15 minutes on foot to their workplaces.” The capital region will have nine cities and will be a blue and green city. “We are engaging the best companies and world’s top architects in building our infrastructure.” Singaporeans lead the team.
Tremendously impressed by the Pudong, the annexe for Shanghai’s overspill, Lee would have heartily approved of Mr Chandrababu Naidu’s decision to build a new city. Both Lees, father and son, have recommended a similar solution for Bombay’s congestion. In addition, the senior Lee long ago warned that Bangalore was too crowded to remain an effective equivalent of the American Silicon Valley.
His son, too, found Bangalore “bursting at the seams” without adequate housing, commercial space and infrastructure. “If you could get developers in, I am sure that the money will flow and the urban fabric will improve” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, making another pitch for allowing Singapore into real estate which he called “potentially a major interest” for his nation of expert and sophisticated builders. Ignoring Bangalore, he advised India to develop Hyderabad which the wits had already begun to call “Cyberabad”. Amaravati fits the bill as the city of the future. It is Singapore’s stake in India’s development.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.