How blue areas become grey: Reclassification of waterbodies in Chennai

Waterbody reclassification in Chennai has come under scrutiny for the complex and arbitrary manner in which it is being carried out by the CMDA.

There is a distinct possibility that many residences in Chennai stand on what would have been a waterbody or agricultural land decades ago. So, how did it become a residential plot? How was construction even allowed on such land? Most likely, because the builder applied for land reclassification by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) before construction of houses in these locations.

Around 70% of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) constituted agricultural lands before CMDA formed its First Master Plan in 1976. According to the Second Master Plan, only 12% of agricultural lands are remaining. According to researchers, waterbodies have also shrunk to 3.2 sq km from 12.6 sq km between the late 1800s and 2017.

It is not a new fact that water bodies act as bulwarks against floods and drought. But CMDA has been considering waterbody reclassification proposals. This, despite a 2015 Madras High Court order that discourages land reclassification of water bodies in Chennai.

An excerpt from it reads:

The State being a trustee of these natural resources such as tanks, lakes etc., has to necessarily act consistent with the nature of such trust. The vesting of these lands and water bodies with the Government is to benefit the public and any attempt made by the Government to act in a manner derogatory to the object for which the land was vested, has to be held to be illegal.

So, how does the CMDA decide on cases of land reclassification? What are the larger implications of this process?

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

Process of land reclassification followed by CMDA

CMDA classified the land use in Chennai in its masterplans. Land use can be classified as residential, commercial, mixed, institutional, industrial, agricultural, others etc. But Section 32 of The Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act 1971 provides for land owners to request a land use change. The CMDA website gives a step-by-step process to apply for land reclassification in Chennai.

Application: “For land reclassification, there are application forms available online on the CMDA website or hard copies are available in the office too. Then one must fill out the form and attach all the documents, including the encumbrance certificate, field measurement book and patta,” says a CMDA official.

Calling for public suggestions: The reclassification request will also be published in the newspapers calling for objections or suggestions from people, within a 21-day window.

“We consider the objections and grievances from the public on land reclassification requests. We put it on the record for Technical Committee and Authority Board Meetings,” says Anshul Mishra, the Member-Secretary of CMDA. No response is given to people who submit their suggestions. “But we publish [in the media] if reclassifications have been denied based on public suggestions.”

For instance, a CMDA meeting in mid-December considered land reclassification of the Redhills catchment area and the objections put forth were discussed.

Detailed scrutiny of the proposal: “After the Area Plans Unit of CMDA processes the request carefully, they check for all the necessary documents,” says the CMDA official.

Read more: Why a women’s entrepreneur zone in Red Hills catchment area is a bad move

CMDA is not the only body to approve reclassification requests

Obtaining clearance from other departments: “The reclassification request is sent to other departments like the Public Works Department, Greater Chennai Corporation and Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board to obtain a No-Objection Certificate (NoC),” says the official. “The public grievances will be verified. If the issue relates to any other department, then they can rectify it or deny the reclassification proposal.”

Public objection letter to land reclassification of waterbody in Chennai
A letter of objection by the public against reclassification of the Redhills catchment area. Source: CR Balaji

For instance, the Water Resources Department of the Public Works Department must vet the above grievance raised by one C R Balaji on the Redhills catchment area reclassification before providing an NoC.

Technical Committee should okay the reclassification: The technical committee consists of technical experts, with the Member-Secretary of CMDA as the head.

“All the senior rank officials from each department [like GCC, CMWSSB, TNPCB etc.] will meet and discuss the proposal,” explains the CMDA official. If they give a go-ahead and the NoCs are cleared the authority will sanction land reclassification.

“Reclassification is given for a plot of land based on the surrounding developments. This is the general criterion. There are no prescribed criteria yet. We have started discussing the objective criteria for reclassification,” says Anshul.

Authority must give a nod too: Every three months, the Authority [Board Meeting] looks at land reclassification applications in Chennai and decides to approve or reject the application.

“This Authority consists of the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Member-Secretary of CMDA. In addition to that, there are senior officials like the GCC Commissioner, and political representatives nominated by the state government. Then, there are urban planning and industrial experts,” Anshul lists the members of the Authority who have the final say in changing the land use.

“The minister of Tamil Nadu Housing and Urban Development Department chairs the Authority, and officials from different city departments will be there,” notes the official.

Subsequently, CMDA will update the land reclassification in the masterplan maps, which are available in the public domain.

Private attempts to land reclassification in Chennai

For 17 years, a private party had been trying to reclassify a portion of six acres of Adyar river (waterbody) in the Second Master Plan as a residential and institutional zone in Nandambakkam. The CMDA has now given a green signal for the reclassification this year. This move is despite public objections to it and rejection of the reclassification proposal by the technical committee

When Arappor Iyakkam, an NGO working against corruption, objected to the reclassification, CMDA claimed that the areas were privately owned, and the Revenue Department had given pattas to the land owners.

“CMDA says that the master plan is bound to have some errors. Even if they had marked the land as a waterbody in the masterplan, the Revenue Department has given pattas for the land,” says Jayaram Venkatesan, the convenor of Arappor Iyakkam. Therefore, CMDA can reclassify a privately owned plot for other land uses.

“An authority stalled the reclassification of this portion of the Adyar river for 17 years. But the same authority has reclassified other areas which were waterbodies [as given in the Second Master Plan]. This unfairness and discrepancy are prevalent, and need to be corrected,” notes Anshul. 

David Manohar, a social activist with Arappor Iyakkam says that the reclassification of the Adyar river is bound to have grave ramifications. “The area opposite to the site of reclassification experienced heavy floods previously, that the water level reached the first floor of a building.”

Government attempts at land reclassification

In 2019, a police station was constructed in the Thamaraikeni lake in Semmancheri. “As per an RTI reply from CMDA, they had reclassified this area to an institutional zone from a waterbody in 2019. Then, we sent a letter to CMDA objecting to the reclassification. There was no action from them. Then, we filed a case with the High Court,” recalls Jayaram. “We confirmed that the area was a waterbody with the help of village maps and revenue records.”

“The court confirmed that the police station was an encroachment on the waterbody of the lake in Semmancheri, with the help of experts from IIT. The HC also gave a stay on the usage of the police station, and the judge directed the government to demolish the structure,” he continues, adding that the case is still pending to be heard. Also, the police station still stands, unused.

Jayaram says that the police station has been built on a higher level, than the surrounding areas. This will make the latter highly prone to floods.

Land reclassification in Chennai and the city masterplans

“The First and Second Masterplans marked some areas as waterbodies if they faced waterlogging due to rain. They did not consider whether the area was government land or private land, or waterbody,” explains Anshul.

Therefore, some private lands were considered waterbodies, if they faced waterlogging due to heavy rains.

“This is a catch. Now, when people apply for reclassification of their lands [considered as waterbodies], there is confusion about whether to do it or not, as per the masterplans. Sometimes, the authorities have approved the proposal, and at others they have denied reclassification,” he adds.

“CMDA does not decide the ownership of land. The Revenue Department takes care of that,” he says.

Moreover, CMDA is surveying the cases of lands which were not waterbodies in the First Masterplan, but have been considered waterbodies in the Second Master Plan. They have asked the collectorates to share the survey numbers of these lands.

Corrective measures for land reclassification

“Indiscriminate reclassification of waterbodies, grazing grounds, marshlands and such other eco-friendly areas for urban development has serious implications for ecological equilibrium and the stability of the ecosystem diversity. It can result in or exacerbate natural disasters like flooding, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes,” remarks KP Subramanian, a former professor of urban engineering at Anna University.

Moreover, he urges for a more scientific process of land reclassification, since the present guidelines are ambiguous. “Such guidelines give discretionary power to the decision makers and make them vulnerable to the allegation of favouritism. Thus, we need a detailed manual prepared by an interdisciplinary expert team based on scientific analyses.”

He says that the manual, for example, can categorise possible reclassifications:

  • Acceptable as a matter of routine.
  • Must not be classified under any circumstances such as waterbodies, wet agricultural land other ecologically sensitive lands
  • Other categories with certain riders.

“Now, we are coming up with a concept of TDRs [Transferable Development Rights] as a compensation mechanism. If the government takes any private land for public use, we have to give them development rights. The owners can sell it in the market and get money,” says Anshul.

CMDA plans to follow the Hyderabad model of TDRs. In Hyderabad, the buffer area around a waterbody is 30 metres. If the buffer area falls on private lands, the Hyderabad urban planning department compensates the owners with TDRs.

While land reclassification remains a complex and contentious issue, the need of the hour is to define the reclassification criteria to arrive at a uniform procedure that does not lend itself to questions or allegations around probity. This will ensure that the process is more transparent and the city makes serious efforts to conserve and protect what is left of its buffer zones and flood mitigation landscape.

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  1. Jayaraman V S says:

    This refers to your Reclassification notification No.R1/07/2022. Under CMDA reference Nos.R1/14171/2022, R1/14172/2022, R1/14175/2022, R1/14176/2022, R1/14177/2022, R1/14178/2022 and R1/14179/2022, four applicants have sought reclassification of Redhills catchment area into institutional zone to enable them to build medical colleges-cum-hospitals.

    While the idea of publishing of such reclassification notifications is to elicit response from the general public, since these do not get noticed, hardly does it evoke response. Further, since the CMDA does not erect any boards at the sites where reclassifications are proposed, the neighborhood people get to know only when the work relating to the building starts and by that time, voicing concern becomes ineffective.

    Irrespective of whether or not the reclassification notifications evoke public response, it is incumbent upon the CMDA to ponder over such applications as reclassification of land use, especially water bodies and Redhills catchment areas will cause incalculabe harm in that we have to face water scarcity. With climatical chages taking place, it will be a procession of disasters that we have to encounter. For the benefit of a few, the CMDA cannot and should not wreck irreparable damage.

    While the CMDA may scoff at the objections to reclassifications, saying that the applications are still under the scrutiny stage and that it has not taken full cognisance of, what it should do is to reject such applications, on its own, without going through the rigmaroles. As one which is vested with authority, CMDA cannot shirk its responsibility. While it is very difficult to find new water sources, we should preserve and nurture the existing ones.

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