The waters have receded, those manning centres for immediate relief have gone back to their respective activities, and now the focus shifts to long-term rehabilitation. There is now a realisation that Chennai cannot afford to expand the way it did. That it does need to grow is a reality, but such growth has to be based on a sustainable model. How can this be done? A macro approach at the planning and policy level is necessary, but there has to be considerable attention to detail at ground level.
Did you know for instance that there is really no agency that looks into the planning and lay-out of any new colony in the city? This is not unique to Chennai alone – all Indian cities suffer from the same problem. At a rarefied level exists the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and it concerns itself only with master plans, of which it has produced but two, the last one being ten years ago and subject to much dispute. It reserves for itself the right to sanction construction. The Corporation, which is supposed to monitor adherence of actual building to plan, does not control what happens by way of drainage, water supply or electricity, each being under an independent authority. The roads do come under the Corporation, but if it is a national or state highway, then there are additional powers that hold control. It is therefore no wonder that our residential and business areas are such a mess – a road laid by the Corporation can be cut at any time by Metrowater, a footpath can be blocked by an electrical transformer or junction box. There is nobody who controls all these activities.
In world class metros (and Chennai has been touted as that by successive administrations), the city’s municipal body is paramount.The Mayor is empowered to treat the city as a corporate entity – his Council can seek public funds and loans to execute specific projects, with accountability to the people. Here it is more a political office and funding is completely controlled by the State, making the process opaque and serving ends that are at times completely deviant from what is for the general good. How else can we explain the plethora of flyovers, the huge development of residential colonies with no civic infrastructure, and arbitrary beautification schemes that have no relevance to day-to-day life? And with independent bodies taking care of various aspects of city life, what can the Corporation do? It can at most collect property tax, lay a few roads, and hope that the rest will be handled well.
Do areas within city limits and the number of people residing there alone decide what makes a metro? That would definitely appear to be the case with Chennai, which around five years ago suddenly witnessed a threefold increase in area, with no plan in sight for what was to be done with the space. Consequently, each of the wards behaved exactly as they were when they were villages or ‘upgraded municipalities’ with no cohesion to the Corporation. That is really not the way a city is to be administered.
A few years ago, there was a hue and cry when a demand was made for Mumbai to be declared an independent Union Territory. Perhaps the idea was not bad after all. The time has come to take a deep look at they way our top five metros are run if they are not to break down when it comes to infrastructure. The trouble is, our political masters will be loath to let go of the power that goes with it.