Chennai has taken to the fast lane as better infrastructure and favourable policies have
spurred industrial growth, job creation and healthcare facilities. Here’s a look at the trend and if this growth can translate into a sustainable, inclusive development
“Is this really the Chennai that I used to live in? Flyovers, grade separators, glitzy malls… It is completely metamorphosed” was the instant reaction of Reeni Cherian, an environmentalist, visiting after a few years of work stint abroad.
Chennai has indeed gone through a sea change. Spatial expansion, steps towards integrated multi-mode transport and availability of worldclass products and healthcare facilities seem to validate the Liveability Index 2013 that declared Chennai one of the top three liveable cities in India.
What drives Chennai’s growth is its improved infrastructure, facilitating ease of transportation. Some of the infrastructural projects are not only utilitarian but also add an aura of aestheticism to the cityscape.
Spatially, Chennai has grown from an expanse of 176 sq.km to 426 sq.km by including some suburbs. The expansion was aimed at levelling the disparity found between the city and the suburbs in basic services provisions, said the government some time back.
A moving transport
An obvious change is the relatively easy commutability. Smooth flow of traffic has been achieved by converting traffic-intense roads into single-entry points and by installing timed, automated signals.
An integrated, multi-mode transportation system has been initiated and work on elevated and underground metro rail systems is on. New bus routes have been added for better connectivity with other public transport systems.
Local trains run at a five-to-ten minute frequency, always full to the capacity. Gauge conversion has facilitated better carrying capacity. It is considered a cheap and efficient public transport system by a majority of the residents.
Buses are also always packed, in spite of additional routes and number of vehicles introduced regularly. However, majority still relies on personal vehicles. A recent study suggests that less than 40 percent of Chennai residents use public transport. The trend would change for better once the network is enhanced through metro rail.
But roads are not just for the vehicles. In collaboration with Institute for Transportation Development and Policy (ITDP), other firms and government departments, Chennai City Connect, an umbrella organisation, is working on making roads pedestrian-friendly, completing 30 of them so far.
Full of energy
Chennai has relatively limited cuts. This has been at the cost of the rest of state. Chennai consumes one-fifth of the statewide consumption.
With the government’s encouraging schemes and subsidies for renewable energy, many institutions, commercial establishments and residences have opted for solar energy, with the scope for wind and bio energy being less in the city. As per Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency’s data, there is 2,401 sq.m of solar panels for cooking and air conditioning systems and photovoltaic cells of 400 kW capacity.
With the solar industry perked up and citizens showing keen interest in cleaner power that would help them tide over the power cuts, renewable energy consumption is set to increase.
Investment in infrastructure and energy, combined with policy decisions, has led to substantial industrial growth. The city’s southern suburbs boast of IT parks and northwest the industrial hub. The automobile industry has found a good foothold, earning Chennai the epithet of ‘Detroit of India’.
Government medical facilities do fairly well, though various physical parameters can be improved. Charitable institutions offer healthcare and specialised treatment facilities such as renal, eye, diabetes and haemophilia treatment. Besides the corporate hospitals that cater to high-end patients and medical tourists, the government has opened one by converting the secretariat building constructed earlier.
Though the realty sector faced a slump in 2011-12, the market has seen an upward swing since 2013. Renowned schools opening chapters in gated communities, professional colleges in suburbs, and improved hospitals and transport facilities have enhanced suburban growth, too. These factors have pushed up the real estate prices. Unaffordable rental rate within the city is also a factor for suburban growth.
To cater to the ever-increasing demand, the government resorts to bringing water from Andhra, Veeranam lake – about 250km from Chennai and desalination plants, in addition to the existing three reservoirs. Making rain water harvesting mandatory has improved water table and stopped sea water ingress in coastal neighbourhoods.
Waste management has been a persistent problem. Cleaning up Chennai in 100 days was one of the promises that Ms Jayalalitha had made on assuming power in 2011. The 5,000 tons of municipal waste generated everyday end up in two dumping grounds. Alternate sites and options by the Corporation are opposed by local residents and environmentalists.
In Pammal neighbourhood, garbage is collected, segregated, composted, recycled and upcycled by trained women, which could be emulated.
Growth vs development
But is the development sustainable and inclusive? Sadly, development has come to mean economic prosperity, even if it is at the cost of environment.
The invisible offshoot is the disparity in development. Economic benefits have not reached the marginalised as cost of living has gone up. Suburban agricultural lands have become industries and human habitations. With agricultural labourers rendered jobless, influx into the city has increased, resulting in increase of slums and scramble for basic amenities.
Theodore, a nature enthusiast, feels sad that the environment has borne the brunt of development through loss in tree cover and deterioration of water bodies.
Vehicular increase has a telling effect on pollution and health. Singleentry roads lead to increased fuel consumption and emission. Exposure to traffic fumes, is the third highest in Chennai, says a University of Berkeley study. Though particulate pollution is less than other cities, thanks to the sea breeze dispersing it, it is increasing.
Dayanidhi, an engineer, says strengthening arterial and feeder roads would sustain the present growth. “Metro will not serve its purpose without feeder roads and shuttle services,” he adds. City Connect has initiated a cycle-sharing scheme, whereby citizens can use bicycles for local commute after alighting from a public transport.
“Metro is good, but its use will depend on its schedule, maintenance, etc.,” says Surekha Kothari, Director of Kothari Industrial Corporation.
Raj Cherubal of City Connect says that Chennai should benchmark itself along the lines of Hong Kong and Singapore with respect to ‘cost of doing business’ surveys.
Surekha Kothari emphasises that financial policies should take small businesses into consideration. Policies should be such that foreign investment aids local development and not chokes it.
A decentralised approach in waste management, green initiatives, especially in transport and manufacturing sectors would go a long way. And it is imperative that the government for making Chennai a world-class city, not only develops policies, but implements them, too.