The last few weeks have seen a renewed debate on whether the State needs a new capital. This is of course one of those topics that are periodically dusted, discussed and then put back on the shelf. But nevertheless, it is a matter that merits attention, especially in the present circumstances. It must however be pointed out here that after having been aired, all talk on this has died out for now, but we never know as to what can take focus, especially with Assembly elections due next year.
The ongoing Covid crisis has shown that congestion is one of the chief causes for the spread of the disease. And there can be no denying that Chennai is a densely packed city. Concentrating further development in the same area therefore makes no sense and if there is to be progress of the same kind in other parts of the State, a new capital may be the best way to go about it. As was recently said by M.G. Devasahayam, a retired IAS officer, the State needs a counter magnet to Chennai.
The topic as we said is not new. The late MG Ramachandran first raised it in 1980 and indicated that his preference was for locating the new capital between Trichy and a Thanjavur, though he opined that Madurai could also be an alternative. The DMK trashed the idea which was rather surprising given that it’s then leader M. Karunanidhi was from Thirukuvalai, not far from Thanjavur. Earlier in this millennium, the late J Jayalalithaa brought up the subject once again and said the new capital would be near Mamallapuram. This was not a great plan given that it would merely extend Chennai and add to the woes of congestion. Happily, that idea was not proceeded with. Now it appears Madurai and Trichy are once again the contenders.
In terms of political sentiment, both towns are good choices, they have been important centres in Tamil history. They are also relatively centrally located within the State unlike Chennai which is in the northernmost tip. It must be recalled here that Chennai or Madras as it was then made perfect sense as a capital in colonial times, located as it was centrally in a Presidency that extended all the way to Odisha. Developments since the 1930s have made Chennai a very distant capital for much of Tamil Nadu.
There are however several crucial factors that need to be taken into account if the shift is being considered seriously. Firstly, the Trichy Thanjavur belt is an agricultural heartland and the taking over of farms for the construction of a capital needs to be avoided. We have seen that this can be a political hot potato especially if regimes change while the work is in progress. The examples of Singur in Bengal and Amaravati in Andhra are fresh in our minds. The managing of the environmental impact is the second major aspect – what will happen to these places when a huge population suddenly descends on them? Will we be transferring the same water crisis that Chennai faces to the new capital? Thirdly, can we consider the new centre to be an administrative capital alone and not encourage industries also to move? In the USA, most States have clearly separated the commercial capital from the administrative and this has ensured very good management. One of the chief reasons as to why Delhi degenerated in the last few decades has been the way it has industrialised. There was no reason for that city to be burdened with this and results are there for all to see.
If the above aspects are taken into consideration before a decision is made, we see no reason why a shift of capital should not be encouraged.