Citizens in the dark as Corporation and CMDA ignore zoning laws at will

How can a residential locality be changed to allow operations of banks, restaurants or other commercial establishments? CMDA and Chennai Corporation are far from transparent on the rules, while residents watch haplessly, often entirely unaware of plans till the damage has been done.

Mahalakshmi street at T Nagar. Harrington Road in Chetpet. Station Border Road at Chrompet. The story is similar in all these localities. Once serene residential neighbourhoods, they now host a number of commercial and institutional establishments. 

Let’s take the case of Mahalakshmi Street in T Nagar. A private bank is being operated from this primarily residential locality, which has no infrastructural support for commercial establishments. There is no designated parking space. Residents came to know about the bank only when it was being constructed. 

It is not the conversion alone that is attracting eyeballs, but also the fact that residents, even though they are the primary stakeholders, are not informed of the change before it happens.

“We may welcome the primary residential locality turning into a mixed one or institutional — who wouldn’t enjoy a creche or a supermarket next door? After all, it reduces commute time, but the point to be reinforced is: does the infrastructure support such a change of land use? Are the roads wide enough for parking? Is the sewage system designed for heavy usage?” questions V S Jayaraman, Secretary of T Nagar Residents Welfare Association. He added that a public consultation meeting would help the residents raise these points. 

Zoning law violations are rampant in our cities, and not least in namma Chennai. In an earlier article, we looked at how it impacts citizens. But why is it so easy to flout rules regarding land use? Where is the system broken?

The usual pattern 

It generally starts with a restaurant or a co-working space or any other commercial establishment that operates from a house in a primary residential locality. They enter into a residential locality by offering a high rental.  The nodal department, the Greater Chennai Corporation is to blame here, as the officials give out licences without the basic checks: Will the establishment violate land use specifications? Do they have space for parking? Will the establishment cause noise pollution in the neighbourhood?

One commercial establishment paves the way for many more, after which they write to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) to change the locality type from primary residential to mixed residential or commercial. Even though we did not get the complete answer from Corporation, a Senior Official seeking anonymity revealed that they do not carry out inspections to give licenses. “It is mostly given based on recommendations from politicians and celebrities. Getting a license is not a tough task,” the official said. 

Efforts to reach CMDA officials to understand the mandated steps in the procedure of changing land use classification of various localities in the city, proved futile.

However, urban planners  throw some light.  “Residents do not realize (what’s happening) until commercial establishments have mushroomed in their neighbourhood! In Chennai, in addition to newspaper notifications issued by authorities, it will be helpful to have visible channel alerts including proximate signage at the site notifying the proposed zoning change,” said Sushma Patankar, Director at C. R. Narayana Rao (Consultants) Pvt Ltd.

Official apathy

CMDA claims that it follows a set of rules like publishing the reclassification request in newspapers and seeking responses from the general public, examining such responses/objections based on its merits and personal inspection of the site by the officials, but the reality is very different.

“Even those who reside close to the site which undergoes such re-classification, are unaware of the changes.  As a result, the move to re-classify the land use often goes unnoticed or draws no public comment,” said Gokul Krishnan, a resident of Guindy. Several streets in Guindy were converted from residential to commercial in the past five years and residents such as Gokul had no idea about it, until the notification had been passed. 

Authorities publish the reclassification notification on the CMDA website and in the newspaper, the only way for the residents to learn about it.

Landuse reclassification notification published in page 7 of a newspaper. Take a close look and you will find that a Red Hills Catchment area is set to become a women entrepreneur zone and an open space reserve area is proposed to be converted to a police station. The first item is a waterbody, that is sought to be changed into a residential building!

If the CMDA’s reclassification has not evoked any public opinion, it is mainly because of poor dissemination of information. “In order to ensure total transparency, the CMDA, besides inserting advertisements in the leading well-read dailies, must put up a huge signage at the site which is set to undergo re-classification, and seek the views of the neighbourhood people, because it is they who will bear the brunt once the area is re-classified,” said V S Jayaraman. 

The Noida example

The Supreme Court of India’s judgement on rampant commercialisation in a residential locality of Noida offers some light at the end of the tunnel. The court issued an order to close the 21 banks and nursing homes, which were operating in Sector 19 of Noida and put the premises to residential use alone. 

“The occupant banks, nursing homes, companies or persons carrying on any commercial activity in the residential sector should stop such activity and shift the same to the appropriate sectors i.e. commercial, commercial pockets in industrial/institutional area and specified pockets for commercial use within the residential sector, strictly earmarked for that activity in the development plan, the Regulations and provisions of the Act,” the court ruled.

There are a few success stories in Chennai too, though the long term outcome does not inspire hope. When a restaurant was about to start operations from a residence in a narrow service lane of Harrington Road, citizens intervened. “We came to know about the conversion only when the building was being renovated. Only after asking around in the locality did we hear of the plans,” said Sheetal Parakh, a resident of Harrington Road.  The residents then complained to the Corporation and traffic police, prompting the restaurant owner to give up the business idea.

However, a design institute has now come up in the same house, even though the service lane offers no infrastructure support. Complaints to the Corporation about the violation have fallen on deaf ears, say locals. Clearly the ones most impacted in this manner by actions of the local government are the ones who have the weakest voice. Getting more such voices together to reach a crescendo that can be heard loud and clear is what is needed now.

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