Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2023

Anna Flyover, some facets

-- by Sriram V

The idea of a flyover over Mount Road was first mooted in, believe it or not, 1948! And it was much bigger than what we have now – for the plan was to construct it from Gemini Circle all the way to Island Grounds. When we speak of lost opportunities this would certainly be one. The Corporation of Madras was the sponsor of the scheme and it simultaneously mooted yet another flyover – from where the Police Commissioner’s Office now stands in Vepery, to the Fort Station. This in effect was more or less the elevated road along Poonamallee High Road that is still being talked about. We must be thankful that the Gemini flyover was constructed in 1973 at least.

The man who proposed those flyovers in 1948 was Meeran Sahib, then Corporation Engineer. Writing about this in 1973, he lamented that the idea was approved by the then Government and it was “a pity that due to other circumstances the projects could not be implemented then.” Twenty five years later, and by then a Haji, Meeran Sahib was the Technical Director of East Coast Constructions & Industries (ECCI), the company that bagged the contract to execute the flyover.

Meeran Sahib was clearly an engineer par excellence, for the design of the flyover both in terms of layout and also structure was his. The usage of “multiple hollow box slabs” for the main deck and an ingenious intertwining arrangement of stirrups” from the precast elements were all part of a design that he patented. The Gemini flyover is thus standing testimony to this man’s design skills that after so many decades, it still functions, with minimal requirements for breakdown maintenance.

The PWD Secretary of the time, M.M. Rajendran, IAS recalls that the construction of the flyover itself was a fairly smooth experience but the lighting for the elevated portion was a challenge. The special supplement released by The Hindu on July 1, 1973 echoes this. “The lighting system to be provided for the Fly-Over-cum-inter-change at the Gemini Circle has to be different from the ordinary conventional post-lighting as the lighting is required not only for the ground level roads but also for the Fly-Over and ramps. Hence it has been decided to adopt the latest concept of lighting known as “High-mast lighting system” A scheme has been formulated for this, at a cost of Rs. 11.5 lakhs.” Clearly, this was when high mast lamp posts first made their appearance in Madras city. They were designed and located in such a fashion that there was uniform lighting on the flyover and also the road below. Pending execution of this scheme temporary flood lights were fixed to existing poles at a greater height, around the Gemini corner to light the flyover and the surroundings.

The police, especially K.R. Shenai, then Commissioner for the city of Madras, came in for a lot of praise for the way the traffic had been handled during the four years the flyover was under construction. A news item in The Hindu dated November 11, 1971 notes that traffic snarls were a part of the work, though in the light of present day congestion all of that would seem a mere bagatelle. But there certainly were traffic diversions in place as can be seen from an announcement – “The police have notified the following revised traffic regulations at the work-spot: (i) cyclists motor-cyclists and scooter riders coming along Nungambakkam High Road and turning left towards Mount Road, should take the lane adjacent to the compound wall with the advertisement hoardings on it; (ii) traffic coming along Kodambakkam High Road and wanting to turn right into Nungambakkam High Road to reach Mount Road, would first have to turn left and go up to the Petrol pump and then take a ‘U’ turn; (iii) repairs to Graemes Road were now being expedited and after one or two days cars coming along Nungambakkam High Road and wanting to go to Mount Road towards Spencers would do well to take Khader Nawaz. Khan Road, Shaffee Mohammed Road and Graemes Road so as to ease the pressure at Gemini Circle.” It all reads just like the present diversions in place to accommodate Metrorail work.

The construction of the flyover evidently created quite a buzz for among the various tableaux in place for the Republic Day Parade of 1970 in Madras, one had the plan and layout of the entire structure!

If the then Government had had its way, the Gemini flyover may have been the city’s first toll road. With work in full swing by 1971, and there being enormous pressure on funds, M. Karunanidhi, then CM, announced on December 8 that his Government was contemplating a levy on motorists so that a part of the expense could be defrayed by them. The idea seems to have been abandoned later, probably fearing an electoral backlash.

By April 1972, traffic was permitted under the span from Cathedral Road to Nungambakkam High Road. Till then, it was a squeeze via one of the side lanes. The western half of the flyover, namely the portion that connects Mount Road to G.N. Chetty Road was the first to be completed and in April 1972, it was thrown open to traffic. As a matter of abundant precaution, a one-way system was followed for a month – north to south in the morning and in the opposite direction in the evening. By May, traffic was in full flow in both directions. The eastern half, which was the more difficult to build, was completed only by 1973.

The inauguration took place on July 1, 1973 in the evening, within the small patch of greenery that is formed by the curving arm of the flyover. By around 9 pm, after the speeches were all over, traffic was permitted, with heavy police presence to guide motorists. The entire flyover was illuminated. The speeches show that flyovers and subways have been a part of DMK agenda forever. A slew of new projects was announced – an overbridge at Central (covering the Stanley Viaduct), another at Royapuram, connecting it to Rajaji Salai, another at Guindy, and yet another at Manali. All of them came into existence over the years, a sign of the slow manner in which Government progresses. As many as six subways were also announced along Mount Road, and these too became reality over time.

The question of statues along the flyover came up a few months after inauguration. M.G. Ramachandran had broken away by October and by early 1974, his outfit, the ADMK was demanding the green patch in the clover be made over to house a statue of Periyar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. What is most interesting is that Karunanidhi publicly rejected the proposal. In July 1974, he said that the Gemini flyover was not a suitable place for erecting the statue of any leader and that his Government had already decided on another space for the Periyar statue. He also said that Periyar Thidal, the place where the leader was interred, was the best spot for honouring him. His Government he said, was contemplating erecting statues of horses along the flyover. By then, his ban on horse racing had come into effect and these statues were meant to commemorate it. They were duly erected only for horse racing to make a comeback within a short while. In recent years a new piece of fiction has emerged and is clamouring to be accepted as a fact – that the man reining in the horse is a depiction of Vanthiyathevan, a princeling under the Cholas and hero of the fictional work Ponniyin Selvan.

But by August 1974, Karunanidhi had to give in. He permitted the erection of Periyar’s statue, and MGR thanked him for it – perhaps the last instance of bonhomie in public between the two leaders. In 1981, MGR, then in power, hosted a World Tamil Conference in Madurai and contemplated moving the two horses to the race course in that city, which was the venue for the meet. However nothing came of it and the two remain where they are, as KRA Narasiah writes, standing as “marvellously irrelevant pieces of art”.

He Designed Lasting Structures

The man behind the Anna Flyover was undoubtedly Haji Meeran Sahib, the Corporation Engineer who in 1948 first mooted such a structure, evolved a design with minimal use of cement and steel and then 25 years later, was responsible for its construction as part of the private company that was awarded the tender. He not only saved the Government Rs 9 lakhs in the cost, which was a remarkable achievement but also finished the project three months ahead of schedule. The details of his design are hard to comprehend for a layman but to quote from an article he wrote for The Hindu, “the special feature of the design is in the conceptual development of the structural form of the bridge decking. The bridge deck is a multiple hollow-box slab, made up of precast elements. An ingenious intertwining arrangement of stirrups from the precast elements with the main reinforcement and anchored into the in-situ concrete ensures complete monolithic action of the precast elements for the full deck and thus resulting in a high degree of lateral distribution of live load. The adoption of a hollow section for the bridge deck and the high lateral distribution due to the special detailing has resulted in enormous saving in steel and concrete. Incidentally, this method of construction is the first of its kind in our country and it is the writer’s own patented system.”

A graduate in Civil Engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy (1931 batch), he joined the Madras Corporation in 1933 and rose to become its Chief Engineer in 1948. He was a Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers, London and a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers India. As Corporation Engineer he designed the present arched spans of the Napier Bridge, the first public tennis courts in the city (now located within the Hockey Stadium premises) at Egmore, and the layout of Shenoy Nagar. Post retirement (1961), and heading the team at East Coast Construction and Industries, he worked on the Tower Park at Anna Nagar, the architect being Yahya C. Merchant and the engineer S.L.N. Moorthy. All these structures still stand, and together with the Gemini Flyover, are testimony to his structural design skills.

— Sriram V, with inputs from Badrunnissa Mahadevan, granddaughter of Meeran Sahib.

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