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Vol. XXXII No. 14, November 1-15, 2022

How (not) to grow a city

-- by The Editor

The Chennai Metropolitan Area just shrank by around 3,000 sq km. It came down from 8,800 sq km or so to 5,900. In reality this is not a loss, as we never grew to that extent. We are at present around 1,189 sq km and now set to expand to 5,900 sq km. Earlier, that limit was pegged at 8,800 sq km making us the second largest urban agglomeration after the National Capital Region. Now we have scaled down our aspirations somewhat. If we have confused you sufficiently dear reader, we apologise and now proceed to explain what all this means.

It was in 2017 that the expansion of the metropolitan area was mooted by the then Government. It was announced that this expansion would include all of Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram Districts, apart from Arakkonam Taluk. All of this, it was claimed, was being done to boost infrastructure and maintain uniformity in development to counter the effect of ever-increasing population in the city. This was roundly criticised on several counts. Civic agencies in charge of the city have proved completely incapable of managing even the existing area of 1,177 sq km. 

Public consultations were held in April 2018 and those who attended raised several concerns. Foremost among these was the impact such a move would have on several ecological hotspots and around 4,200 water bodies. The very word ‘expansion’ was anathema to many who felt that the city had to manage with what it had and not look to gobble up everything in the vicinity. The impact of urbanisation of heritage spots such as Kanchi and Mamallapuram was also highlighted as also the risk of many designated agricultural areas becoming housing layouts. To all of this the Government officials in attendance had just one response – that the idea was still in the concept stage and that nothing would be done without further consulting with the public.

But early in May 2018 there was an announcement to the effect that consultants would soon be appointed for going ahead with a plan for the ­expansion. The terms of reference for the consultant included creating a master plan that would be done after surveying land use, spatial planning, infrastructure and transport facilities. In short, the Government had decided to implement its plan, no matter what the public felt about it. What was expected from the consultant was a master plan for the city, which would be Chennai’s third.

Now, with a new Government in place, there is a fresh change of plan. The area under consideration has been brought down. You wonder as to what the consultant and the officials in charge felt about it – after all they must have based their earlier recommendation on some scientific reasoning? How are they reconciled to a vast reduction by 3,000 sq km? Whatever it is, that the city is considering a more reasonable footprint is a relief.

The usual reasons for expansion have been trotted out – better management of transport and other resources, conservation of water and green cover, etc. Has there been any Indian city that can truly claim to be conserving water and green cover? The other question is on management of transport and other resources – how have all these fared within the city so far? Is our record really exemplary that we are now emboldened to make fresh conquests? It is all very well to boast about becoming a mega city but the first steps involve a rethink on the transformations that can truly make us one. Otherwise this is only a means of helping the real estate lobby.

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