Chennai expansion to Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur: Why citizens should be concerned

The CMDA proposes to increase metropolitan area from 1,189 sq.km to a whopping 8,878 sq.km, making Chennai the largest urban region in the country after Delhi-NCR. Citizens, however, find little cheer in that and here's why.

The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to expand the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) to eight times its current size has earned a fair share of criticism from city activists and residents. This became particularly evident during the public consultative meeting organised by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) recently.

Even though the second master plan for Chennai, proposed in 2008, has proved to be a damp squib, the state government had, via a notification in January 2018,  proposed to expand CMA from the current 1,189 sq.km to a whopping 8,878 sq.km.  The proposal, if implemented, will urbanise a total of 1,709 villages in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, and make Chennai the largest urban region in the country after Delhi-NCR. Bigger than Bangalore (8005 sq km), Hyderabad (7100 sq km) or Greater Mumbai (4355 sq km).

According to CMDA officials, the plan, which is in preliminary stage, is to cater to the growing population in Chennai and for better use of land in Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts. It is claimed that expansion of the metropolitan area is necessary for balanced urban development of the city.

When Chennai saw rapid expansion

Notified in 1975, the first master plan resulted in the expansion of Chennai from 174 sq km to 1189 sq km, covered Chennai Corporation, eight Municipalities, 11 town panchayats and 179 villages in 10 panchayat unions. However, it was only during the second master plan in 2008 that the CMDA proposed to improve the city infrastructure by setting up committees for various departments including traffic, transportation and land use.

The committee members agreed to meet once in three months to review the master plan, every two years. However,  New Indian Express reported that the committees have not met since the second master plan was approved.

“One of the key projects in the second master plan is to establish multiple satellite towns within the CMA region. However, only two of them (Shollinganallur and Manali) has been reality.  Why should the government come up with a new proposal when a ten-year-old plan itself is not implemented?” questions Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam.

Public consultative meeting at Ripon Buildings Chennai. Pic: Charu Govindan

Logic defying notification?

The public consultative meetings were conducted by the CMDA in three districts — Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Chennai — during April, to invite opinions from various stakeholders and citizens. At these meetings, however, officials were unable to give a convincing answer to the question of why the expansion was required.

Citizens felt that there were many inconsistencies in the proposal. We quote a few objections raised by those that attended the meetings –

  • A radius of 100 sq km from the epicentre of Chennai was demarcated to be added into the CMA. However, no survey has been done to study the ecological hotspots in the region.
  • If the plan is for better use of the land, why should it be associated with Chennai? Or even be within CMA limits? Why can’t there be a Tiruvallur district plan and a similar one for Kancheepuram? 
  • Kancheepuram district is the largest rice producer in Tamil Nadu, yielding at least two agricultural crops and having good ground water recharge system. The CMDA has not devised a solution to protect this land from the onslaught of urbanisation.
  • Food security would be a burning problem in Tamil Nadu, if the agricultural lands are taken over by real estate. The speed at which farming lands would be urbanised would increase after expansion.

The extent of agricultural land in the proposed CMA limits, is significant. Officials present in the meetings — CMDA member secretary Rajesh Lakhoni and Principal Secretary, Housing and Urban Development, S Krishnan and others– did not address the issue of what would constitute better use of fertile agricultural land currently being used for cultivation.  

Unlike Bengaluru and Mumbai, experts opine that Chennai’s urbanisation is under control. According to the census in 2011, an estimated 7,700,000 people live in the CMA. “Even if we expect a 25 per cent growth rate which would take the population to 1.25 crores, the current size of 1,189 sq km is sufficient,” says Jayaram.

According to Prashanth Gowtham, an activist based in Kotturpuram, CMDA has no authority to conduct the public consultative meeting, as it is the responsibility of the local body to consult the public before taking any decision. Quoting the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Indian constitution, he says that the primary step to the expansion should have been a consultative meeting with the resident welfare associations and general public at the ward level.

Why should we be worried?

In all the discussion around the expansion of city limits, there has been no mention about the protection of water bodies and retention of biodiversity, especially in the light of the 2015 floods. The current expansion plan bears close resemblance to the 2008 plan, in that there was no focus on saving and conserving the environment.

“The city of Chennai is associated with growing urbanisation. Once merged into the CMDA limits, the value of the land would go up significantly, thus benefiting real estate barons who had already purchased large strips of land in the two districts. This paves the way for systemic corruption,” said Jayaram.

Chennai has forever been the victim of poor planning, evident from the destruction in the Pallikaranai marsh land and the loss of green spaces to pave way for haphazard housing. Many basic needs of the city in its current form remain unaddressed. Vast quantities of sewage are released untreated into our water bodies, the water bodies themselves are shrinking and disappearing due to haphazard construction and rampant encroachment, the water and sewage network remains incomplete in many parts of the city, connectivity via public transport remains a distant dream for many peripheral parts of the city, Chennai has the highest number of fatalities due to road accidents and the lowest per capita pavements in the entire country, to name a few.

When we are struggling with 1189 sq km, how is CMDA going to handle 8878 sq km, wonders the average Chennaiite.

As well known architect Tara Murali pointed out, there is a trust deficit between the government and citizens. The main questions on everyone’s mind are “Shouldn’t such an important exercise be done more exhaustively, with greater publicity and advance notice? At the end of it all, will our voices be truly heard? Our concerns addressed? Are we going to witness a mindless expansion at the cost of agricultural land?”

“The whole idea of the public consultative meeting is to understand the views of the public and communicate it to the government. Concerns would be definitely addressed in the government order,” Rajesh Lakhoni, member secretary of the CMDA told Citizen Matters.

It is now hoped that the outcome of the meeting will be as per the famous couplet of Thiruvalluvar, as was aptly quoted by citizen Charu Govindan:

“இதனை இதனால் இவன் முடிக்கும் என்றாய்ந்து அதனை அவன் கண் விடல்”

(You need to give the job to the right person that is capable of doing it well with the right tools.)

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