Welcome to City of Destiny’, proclaim the billboards at the recently opened Visakhapatnam airport. But outside, in the city wedged between the Eastern Ghats and a spectacularly long, golden beach, there is an air of expectancy, as if its promised destiny is still round the corner. Multi-storey apartments sprout incongruously among banana groves, villages around the city are agog with promise, optimistically brandishing ‘flats/sites for sale’ signs; flyovers raise half-built wings to the sky; and even the pride of the port city, its three IT SEZs sprawled over the ancient hills, appear like ghost cities, dark and deserted. As for the glass-fronted malls and multiplexes coming up along Beach Road, they are still woefully short of crowds.
But there is one sign of the future that everyone here is anticipating for this fastest-growing city in the country: an evening rush hour. For the last couple of years, from 7 pm to 10 pm, herds of buffaloes, tractors, trucks carrying iron rods, white Honda Citys rigged out in bouquets of roses, auto-rickshaws, petrol tankers, Audis, Volkswagens, Skodas, bikers, cyclists and hundreds of schoolchildren returning home from the city’s famed cramming schools spill out on the main artery that connects the expectant suburbs to an old town that has been waiting for its destiny for more than a century now.
“Visakhapatnam has a beautiful future,” explains a senior government official, S. Satyanarayana, uncannily echoing the words of the British dam builder, General Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, who prepared the earliest design for the Visakhapatnam port nearly 200 years ago, declaring the little fishing town with its natural harbour as “the city of the future”.
I was going back to Vizag—the British corruption of Visakhapatnam that we used to call it then—after almost 45 years, afraid that everything would have changed beyond recognition. I tried to adjust my memory of the little town, the convent boarding school, the only one for girls at that time, the Sunday walks to the deserted beach, the birthday cakes from the bakery in the single row of shops in the town and the green hills beyond, with what the official was telling me: six SEZs, 20,000 acres acquired for industrial parks, two ports, two universities, 25 engineering colleges, three medical colleges, five pharmaceutical colleges.... “It is already the first among the second-rung cities of the country, and by 2020 it will become the most crucial city in India,” the official concludes.
In the works A factory under construction at the APSEZ. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Even the little children in the rehabilitation colony set up for those displaced by the SEZ in Atchutapuram seem to realise that the exchange of land for jobs wasn’t what the officials told them it would be. The sun is setting by the time we arrive at the colony in Dibbapalam, but all the adults are away, at the garment factory where they earn less than Rs 3,000 a month. After paying off the loans they incurred building their new homes, there is hardly any money left to buy rice for the family, the children tell us. Each family was given a 250 square yard plot and Rs 1.2 lakh compensation for losing their homes. At Rs 5 lakh per acre and a job, the farmers jumped at the deal. But others are learning from their mistakes—the APIIC officials admit they are finding it hard to acquire land for their expansion plans.
As Bosanna says, “I do want a job for my son but not at the cost of destroying the livelihood of my community and neighbours. Why can’t the government see that?” Increasingly, however, people like Bosanna are feeling like intruders in their own town. For the growing elite, the signs of Visakhapatnam’s rising status are visible: a Mercedes Benz show last month where orders were highly satisfactory, Volkswagen and Skoda showrooms, two pubs and a lounge bar patronised by the staff of the two bpos that have opened shop here, at least seven or eight parties a month where the city’s 300 richest families get together hoping to be featured in the first city magazine of Visakhapatnam, Yo Vizag. Destiny—for better or for worse.
The time when public agencies acquired tens of thousands of acres of land for economic projects should now be put firmly behind us.
Having spent three years, and after counteless visits otherwise to Vizag, i can assure you that no matter what, one cant help falling in love with the city. I left Vizag for good in 2004, and on visits after that, saw the city change drastically, morphing into this fast growing creature, embelished with all the new-world accessories like malls, big bazaars and flyovers. As long as the city doesnt lose the basic calm and serentiy that has been its halmark, new state capital or not, Vizag would still remain one of the best cities to live in this part of India! In fact this article spoke of another of my hometowns, Bhubaneswar, a scenic laid back city, which isreadying itself for a tryst with development.
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