WHEN I VISITED the future Amaravati, I stayed in Vijayawada, the city across the river from the capital-to-be. On many streets, Vijayawada looks like it was built out of rubble, with enough rubble left over for lots of roadside rubble piles of various sizes. But its dilapidation seems entwined with its vigor. Even at 11 p.m. the streets were wonderfully alive: people eating food from carts, or selling bananas, or hanging out and chatting, and on every other block a brightly lit wedding party overflowing with song. 

Many have asked why Vijayawada couldn’t just have been refurbished to serve as the capital. The advantages of a “greenfield” project, as cities from scratch are called, are huge. “You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness of laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasília,” the American megabuilder Robert Moses once said. “But when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” Many Indian cities are currently struggling with the logistical agony of adding critical new metro lines to narrow old streets.

A greenfield plan, though, also comes with no shortage of risks. Critics have pointed out that Amaravati’s chosen site is prone to flooding, unbearably hot for much of the year, and susceptible to earthquakes. These are technical problems with technical solutions. But there are much bigger risks.

First is that planned cities often fail to come to life the way their planners hope. They are always a gamble — with the exception of war and space exploration, they are the costliest gamble humans make. South Korea hasn’t even finished building a $40 billion planned city called Songdo — which, like Amaravati, was conceived as a model “smart city” — and it’s already been dismissed, even by some techno-optimists, as a failure. China, despite an urbanization rate faster than India’s, has built several planned cities that are ghost towns. The danger with a planned capital is that it will be strictly administrative, without the spontaneity that makes a city thrive — an accusation that is often levied against the planned capitals India has already built.

The state agency responsible for coordinating the construction of Amaravati — the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Autho­rity, or APCRDA — insists that its population projections are on the mark. N. Srikanth, the authority’s commissioner until August, rattled off counter­examples: Astana, the planned capital of Kazakhstan, for example, reached its population projection far sooner than expected. “Whatever anybody may say,” he told me, “the population is going to come in much earlier than your planners say. For that reason, the infrastructure has to be prebuilt.” Timing is crucial. Population, investment, and infrastructure must all be perfectly coordinated to avoid tremendous waste. If shops open too early, they’ll go bankrupt. If they come too late, the residents will have nowhere to buy their daily goods. A highly efficient centralized bureaucracy can make this coordination less nerve-racking, but that’s not what India has.

“The test of a city is its population,” said S.P. Shorey, an urban planner based in Hyderabad. “In spite of lots of attempts by the government to provide incentives, people generally do not move from older cities to new cities.” There are already two major, well-established, flourishing metropolises just a few hours’ drive from Amaravati. It comes down to culture, he said, which can’t be rushed. “It’s not the fault of Amaravati. It’s a natural process. Forget about employment. You need the entire system of urban amenities to attract people. You need culture not only in the sense of historic culture or cultural heritage but the culture of a place that evolves over a period of 100 years. Clubs are culture. Sports are culture.” In the land where Amaravati is coming up, the overwhelming culture is agriculture. It’s telling that all the major holidays in the region revolve around farming — precisely the aspect of life that the new city seeks to erase.

Naidu and the APCRDA give every impression that they’ve done their homework. They’ve studied the cities named above and visited many more for tips or cautionary tales: Vienna for its safety; Shanghai for its business district; Curitiba, in Brazil, for its rapid bus system; Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates, for its energy management; Ashgabat, in Turkmenistan, simply because, as one official told me, they were intrigued by its reputation as the world’s “weirdest capital.” Skeptics insist that the impression is false. “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Anant Maringanti, director of the Hyderabad Urban Lab, told me. “They propose a wild pipe dream, then pull together all the stakeholders and start winging it.”

I admit that I don’t know whom to believe. When I talk to critics, the whole idea seems like mad folly. When I talk to boosters, it starts to make sense again, and I wonder if I lack vision. But these are early days. It’s difficult to imagine success when nothing’s yet been built. My own skepticism moderates when I think of the growing list of countries that seem eager to endorse Amaravati: Japan, the U.K., China, Russia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, and more have all signaled that they might help build it, or offer it further loans. Clearly they think it has promise as an investment. But no outside country has tethered itself as closely to Amaravati as Singapore, the city-state that serves as its primary inspiration and drew up Amaravati’s master plan.a