The new Chennai Metropolitan Area – pic courtesy Madras Musings

Our city is all set to expand, yet again. The last one, in 2007, saw Metropolitan Chennai spanning Minjur to Sholinganallur, an area of 1,177 sq km with a population of 7 million. Then in 2011, the Corporation of Chennai expanded, within the above area of course, taking into itself 42 small local bodies, including 9 municipalities, 8 town panchayats and 25 village panchayats, increasing the area under its jurisdiction by 140 per cent to 426 sq km from the earlier 176 sq km. Now we have Metropolitan Chennai expanding again, to become a mammoth 8,878 sq km in area. The new Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) will in effect encompass all of Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram Districts apart from Arakonam Taluk. All of this is ostensibly with a view to “boosting infrastructure and maintaining uniformity in development to counter the effect of ever-increasing population in the city.” How this will pan out on paper is anybody’s guess.

As a plan it is all very grand. The Government it is announced will prepare a plan (we assume based on inputs from the usual consultants who appear to have a monopoly on all urban planning), which will take a year to be finalized. Thereafter, it will be put into action as a master plan “taking into account transport, basic infrastructure, environment protection and protection of fertile agricultural lands.” Each of those words merit attention and we need to see what has been done by way of handling them in the existing areas of the city. A report card would show that all the civic agencies – the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the Corporation and Metrowater have fared poorly. The core areas, developed more than a century ago get by on the basis of age-old infrastructure, all of it perpetually on the verge of collapse. The newer ones have next to nothing. Several of the latter still have open drains, septic tanks and no piped water supply. And this includes the so-called state-of-art IT corridor. As for transport, people in the periphery still struggle to get to the core areas and vice versa which accounts for the horrendous bottlenecks in places such as the OMR. As a consequence, demand for housing in the inner city continues unabated. As for agricultural land, when did you last see it holding its own against real estate?

It is the same team of civic agencies that are going to take forward the task of urbanizing the 7,000 odd sq kms that will now become a part of the Chennai Metropolitan Area. With such a track record, can we hope for anything different from them? The futility of expanding territory under an existing civic agency has already been amply demonstrated by the expansion as referred to above of the Corporation of Chennai in 2011. It subsequently changed its name to the Corporation of Greater Chennai but on paper it has remained the same old bumbling behemoth, forever years behind on any development project. The floods of 2015 saw it struggling to maintain a semblance of service and it was only the presence of a very dynamic commissioner that saved the day.

The present expansion should also be viewed in conjunction with the ongoing water crisis. The last time the CMA expanded its territory was chiefly to ensure that it had access to groundwater in the surrounding areas. The city was reeling under a drought then, as it is doing now and those whose water was being tapped were protesting, as they are now. Expanding the CMA will mean water can be drawn at will from villages within its jurisdiction. In effect, it is all being done to tide over something that better management and planning could have resolved otherwise. Just think, we had floods two years ago!