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Vol. XXIX No. 12, October 1-15, 2019

Smart Chennai – a discussion

by Varsha Venugopal

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015, which aims to execute ‘smart solutions’ that help develop cities in a people-friendly, sustainable way. Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL) is the local arm of this initiative. It is also the organisation behind the upcoming Pedestrian Plaza at T-Nagar and other key projects. Madras Musings had a chat with its CEO, Raj Cherubal.

What is your vision of a Smart Chennai?

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has the concept of a liveability index, which basically focuses on improving the quality of life. Electronics, IoT (Internet of Things) etc. are just tools that help us do the job better. Ultimately, the concept of ‘smart’ is to improve the quality of life in an inclusive, sustainable way so all members of society can benefit.

What should be Chennai’s top priorities? What are the biggest projects in CSCL’s portfolio at the moment?

In any Indian city, pretty much everything needs repair. Chennai Smart City has worked on various aspects.
For example, water is a key issue. We’re restoring 210 water bodies under the Corporation, including the gigantic 25-acre Villivakam Tank, which is a huge achievement. The Greater Chennai Corporation is also doing a lot of work on storm water drains and Chennai Smart City has helped with a few missing links here. Parking management is also an extremely important project.

Apart from these, we are working on the Integrated Command and Control Centre project which involves a lot of data collection – the idea is to use Analytics, AI etc. to improve governance. Rain gauges, flood sensors etc. are being installed under this project, which will involve hardware as well as integration of data with other departments.
We’ve installed solar rooftops on Corporation buildings and established 28 smart classrooms in Corporation schools. We’re also beginning work on a mega traffic management system, partly funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). The project involves studying 350 junctions in Chennai and we will implement solutions in 154 by leveraging analytics to optimise traffic management. It will include automatic signals and installing GPS systems on MTC buses so passengers can figure out when the next bus is coming and so on.

What are some of the unique challenges that Chennai is facing in implementing Smart City projects?

Almost all Indian cities have similar problems – the systems’ capability to coordinate among various departments is low. Luckily, Chennai has already done quite a bit of homework over the past few years in various fields – footpath projects, water body restoration, solid waste management etc. So, when the Smart City opportunity came along, we were able to do a lot of good work.

For instance, Pedestrian Plaza, Traffic Management, Vehicle Sharing etc. were old projects that were explored many years ago. After multiple attempts and experimentation, they hadn’t taken off. They are now coming on well thanks to past experience.

So, Chennai was better prepared for implementation?

Yes, because compared to many other cities, Chennai has better coordination between departments like Corporation of Chennai, TANGEDCO, Metro Water and so on. There are also a lot of experts like architects and consultants who know how to implement these kinds of projects. So even though it is difficult, Smart City projects are coming along well – Pedestrian Plaza is almost complete, Parking Management project is beginning etc. These things would have been impossible if Chennai hadn’t had past experience with pilot projects.

It is interesting to know that Pedestrian Plaza is actually an old project – some have the impression that it is a new project spearheaded by the CSCL.

Yes. Work had actually been going on for 8-9 years. The projects have been at various stages of planning. Due to lack of funds and other reasons, they didn’t take off. But the NGOs, government officials etc. have been doing their homework on this for almost 8 years.

What is the main goal behind expanding the footpath? What is the larger plan for T-Nagar?
It is not just widening the footpath. This is a congested commercial area. Shopkeepers should do well and at the same time, the public should have a place to hang out and enjoy life – except for the beach and the mall, there are no such spaces. In that sense, this is meant to be a public space, an open mall. We’re bringing in furniture, play equipment for children, wall paintings to beautify the place etc. Most importantly, parking management is also being implemented there. So is cycle sharing, so passengers can connect between metro rail and buses easily – for example, people can come via the Metro Rail, take a cycle to the Pedestrian Plaza and shop.

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The Pedestrian Plaza.

In addition, we also worked on the storm water drains – there’s underground ducting there. Hopefully, the road shouldn’t be dug up again for the next 30 years. It’s not simply a footpath widening project – there’s a lot of different elements to it.

It was earlier proposed that Sir Theyagaroya Road would become a pedestrian zone. Is it true that the shopkeepers objected and so this wide footpath became a compromise?

No. We haven’t given any commitment that this will be a pedestrian-only zone either. At the moment, we’re doing work in phases. All such gigantic projects are implemented in phases – it is not easy to get from where it is now to the end point in one shot. For example, we’re building a multi-level carpark there. We’re going to be installing hundreds of cameras etc. to automate street parking – an app will tell you where parking is available and so on. We’re also planning to charge for parking so only serious shoppers park in the spaces.

How is the expanded footpath to be protected?

We will implement a parking management system – if people park on the footpath etc, the car will get locked. As mentioned, we will also charge for parking.

Apart from that, we’re getting an operations company to take care of two major parts. First, maintenance – if the paint chips or anything needs to be repaired, for instance. Second, event management to conduct music, cultural events, to attract people. As for hawkers – the High Court has said that the area is a no-hawker zone. So, the Corporation will anyway implement the court order.

We’re also testing out technology as a solution. For instance, we’ve seen in pilots that cameras can detect when shops extend onto the footpath.

Why has the Pedestrian Plaza become a greater priority than garbage disposal, water conservation and traffic discipline?

Garbage is a massive subject that was kept out of Smart City on purpose because there were some big tenders happening in parallel. We purposely didn’t take it up because we didn’t want to do a half-baked job. In any case, as far as Pedestrian Plaza is concerned, some work has happened. That entire area is becoming zero waste. All the bins have been removed. The shops keep their waste outside and it gets collected in the morning, not the evening. The shopkeepers work with the Corporation to segregate waste and so on.

Also, we’re in the process of starting 24-hour water supply in T-Nagar – we’ll manage water better by fixing leaks, smart metering etc. Similarly, TANGEDCO is just about to start using smart meters for electricity. Today, someone has to go and check the meter manually but in a smart meter the process is electronic and information can get sent through the internet. It translates to a lot of savings in money, prevention of leakage, theft etc. At the same time, the data will help TANGEDCO improve the quality, voltage etc. of the area.

Additionally, not just the Pedestrian Plaza but even the other major thoroughfares- Venkatnarayana road, GN Chetty road, Usman road etc. – are getting upgraded. Not as fancy as Pedestrian Plaza, but similar principles are being implemented to improve walking, parking, facilities and so on.

What has been the Plaza’s impact on traffic?

Traffic discipline is a much bigger problem. First of all, when you redesign the road where people can walk on the footpath, manage parking intelligently etc. – that itself segregates fast-moving vehicles from slow-moving ones and people, which improves traffic flow to some extent.

Beyond that, traffic discipline is a much bigger problem. Changing a few footpaths and junctions won’t change it dramatically – we need more buses, metro rails etc.

It’s not an area specific problem, it’s a connectivity problem that spans the whole city.

Exactly. For example, in T-Nagar, once the planned work is done, it will be far easier for people to walk in T-Nagar, park better in T-Nagar and so on. But the traffic itself is originating in different parts of the city. Just by doing a little bit here and there in one part of the city is not going to change the traffic problem. For that, the city needs to invest in more buses, more connectivity to metro rail – more metro rail in fact.
At the same time, for all this to work, you do need things like a parking management system etc. And as part of Smart City, some of those things have happened.

How are Chennai’s citizens contributing to and supporting CSCL initiatives?

Wherever possible, we work with the residents, agencies, consultants etc. For example, we have many NGOs helping us with many of the water body restoration projects. They in turn work with the local people. For the Pedestrian Plaza project, we worked closely with the shopkeepers who are a tremendous source of support – they’re happy to get involved in operations and management etc. We do our best to get the local people involved.

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