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Can Chennai overcome urbanisation woes?
Gargi Gupta
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January 12, 2008

You know the truism about the best laid plans of mice and men? Nowhere does it apply more than in the area of urban planning, in India especially. But despite their plans going awry, architects, town-planners, civic officials, industry and citizens bodies continue to persist with the exercise.

The most recent one in this vein is the one floated by the Confederation of Indian Industries for the city of Chennai. Euphonically christened MAP Chennai Region, it proposes to develop a 5,000 square kilometre region around the southern metropolis, ringed by the cities of Marakkanam, Arakkonam and Pulicat.

"This is a regional development plan," says G R K Reddy, managing director of city-based infrastructure development company Marg Constructions [Get Quote], and chairperson of CII Infra 2007, the event where the plan was unveiled, "to take the pressure of migration off the city and to bring about inclusive growth."

Taking as its model the National Capital Region, where you have Noida and Gurgaon to take the population load off Delhi, the plan seeks to develop a network of cities and towns in the region, in a "hub and spoke model" in Reddy's words.

For example, Arakkonam, which has the largest engineering workshop of Indian Railways, and the manufacturing plants of TVS [Get Quote], Tamil Nadu Telecommunications [Get Quote] Limited and MRF Tyres, could be a centre for engineering excellence; Madurantakam, with the automobile testing facility and the Ford and BMW plants nearby, could become a centre for automobile engineering excellence; and so on.

Very noble indeed. But that's not all town-planners have come up with for Chennai. The city is to soon have a new master plan, its first in 31 years. And as residents will say, not a day too soon.

A sleepy, colonial town until even a decade ago, in the globalised India of today, Chennai is the preferred destination for the IT/ITES, auto and auto ancillaries, leather, apparel industries, with a 70 million population projected to grow at a CAGR of 2.34 per cent between 2001-11.

Naturally, that has led to problems, the most acute being the lack of sewerage and drinking water, said to affect 40 per cent of the residents.

Unlike the first MAP Chennai plan, which is still only a proposal, the master plan, albeit a draft yet, has official sanction. And very unlikely for official plans, is being sounded out by stakeholder groups -- citizens, NGOs, architects and the like -- for the past eight months, to preclude the occurrence of the kind of problems that rose with the Delhi Master Plan.

The response from the experts, however, is mixed. Subhash Chandra, chairman of the state chapter of the Institute of Town Planners, feels that the views of industry, the biggest driver of growth, have not been included enough.

Next, there is no provision to attract private participation in city development in the PPP model, something that CII's Chennai MAP plan incorporates in its estimation of Rs 24,000 crore (Rs 240 billion) investment in the next five-six years.

G Dattari, former chief urban planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and advisor, Sustainable Madras Support Project, finds many good things in the plan.

"For one, it makes provisions for 'urbanisable' land leaving flexible its specific use, industrial or residential, which will lead to composite development of localities. Two, it suggests making the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board the nodal agency for clearances, so that hazardous industries are regulated." Ch Gopinath Rao, former national president of the Institute of Valuers, however, finds "no logic" in the plan's not clearly demarcating land for agricultural use.

It's early days yet to know whether Chennai MAP region will see the light of day, but there have already been a lot of positive noises. It has now been referred to the CMDA for its views, informs Chandra.

However, there might be hope for the MAP Chennai plan from the master plan itself, which says that "the government has been considering to declare the areas adjoining the CMA as a Region comprising parts of the Thiruvallur and Kanchee-puram Districts for preparing Regional Plan, considering the developments coming up in the Kelambakkam-Tiruporur, Orgadam-Sriperumbudur and Gummidipoondi-Ponneri areas".

The problem, of course, is not with the plans themselves, but with the cavalier way in which governments everywhere and the multifarious bodies having jurisdiction over a particular area deal with them.

Dattari calls the government the "weakest link", while Gopinath Rao says it is officialdom's lack of foresight that is the stumbling block, because by the time it has reacted to a problem, the problem itself would have been magnified manifold. In this regard, he maintains, the master plan may not improve matters, but it will at least not aggravate them.

Next, it is debatable whether the centrifugal model of urban planning is such a great idea. As Dattari says, "NCR has not been a very effective idea on the ground."

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