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The ball has been set rolling for preparing a Third Master Plan (TMP) for Chennai under the aegis of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA); there is high expectation that the future of the metropolis should be one of vibrancy without the “functional anarchy” tag that J.K. Galbraith gave India.

The exercise to draft the TMP was launched in mid-September through a public consultation in a star hotel on Anna Salai (more consultations will follow, says CMDA), but what has caught the public imagination is the subsequent approval given by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to expand the Chennai Metropolitan Area to a sizable 5,904 sq km.

Although much smaller than the 8,800-plus sq km CMA that the AIADMK envisaged, the nearly 6,000 sq km area in a trifurcated scheme encompassing the three neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu and Thiruvallur is staggering, considering that most peripheral local bodies of Chennai lack infrastructure and capacity even today.

It will be a steep climb for them to create environmentally sound facilities that enable harmonious living across such a vast expanse. Originally, the TMP was meant to cover a smaller CMA at 1,189 sq km. The decision to expand the Metropolitan Area now raises the scope and stakes.

What has caught the public imagination is the subsequent approval given by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to expand the Chennai Metropolitan Area to a sizable 5,904 sq km

Problems spill over
Some of the major concerns for the TMP — many spilling over from the Second Master Plan (SMP) — include:

  • Organising the housing sector, rather than being led by the real estate lobby
  • Housing planning for a changing demographic, including significant population of senior citizens who need assisted living
  • Traffic and transportation expansion without a large energy footprint
  • Solid waste management planning for a circular economy
  • Climate-related impacts of water, flood, and drought
  • Making policy changes to sharply increase rooftop solar power adoption by communities
  • Creation of social infrastructure such as parks, recreation, open commons in nature
  • Putting up electric vehicle infrastructure including charging stations
  • Raising the capacity and employee base of local bodies
  • Bringing order to street vending and commercial land use through regulation
  • Reordering public spaces to dramatically improve pedestrian access
  • Complying with the provisions of disability law on space allocation and access to facilities including transport
  • Introducing compulsory environmental audit to stop disasters including flooding
  • Publication of comprehensive water flow and drainage maps for the entire CMA
  • Monitoring population density periodically and aligning infrastructure to match it
  • Incorporating gender-sensitive features to urban development, including public access for LGBTQI
  • Making universal access the basic principle for all public facilities including transport, buildings, footpaths and so on

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Ongoing lock-in effects
The TMP is expected to be notified by 2025 or early 2026, taking over after the SMP. Meanwhile, several lock-in effects will be felt across the length and breadth of the Chennai Metropolitan Area.

Public transport is a major area, since work on the second phase of Metro Rail with a route length of 119 km is going on at a fast pace. The speculative impact on land use from this development is high, and several gated communities are already being promoted all along the alignment, and even beyond the termini at Madhavaram, Poonamallee and Siruseri SIPCOT. Higher Floor Space Index and Transferable Development Rights here will have to be decided soon.

The COVID-19 impact on the economy has dealt a blow to housing growth in the suburbs, with many unsold houses in some areas including the OMR, and hopes are now pinned on the arrival of the expanded Metro to make them more attractive.

The repeated bouts of rainfall and flooding, in 2015 and later in 2021, with the prospect of more frequent extreme weather events, triggered by global heating, make water management a priority for the TMP. Here, the DMK government pushed ahead with an immediate storm drain programme worth more than half a billion dollars equivalent (Rs.4,000 crore). However, this masks the sanitation deficit in many suburban localities, which have posh gated communities but no matching water supply and sewerage systems.

Last August, the Tamil Nadu government announced the upgrading of several Town Panchayats to Municipalities, some of them coming under the CMA. It also elevated Tambaram and Kancheepuram to Municipal Corporation status, and elections were held statewide to urban local bodies. While there is no lacuna in terms of people’s representatives available to speak on a Master Plan, priority-setting and commitment to its features have caused apprehension among the community. Many local bodies do not have adequate engineering staff or machinery to handle day-to-day requirements, and yet, they find themselves having to cater to gated communities in their midst approved by the CMDA.

The repeated bouts of rainfall and flooding, in 2015 and later in 2021, with the prospect of more frequent extreme weather events, triggered by global heating, make water management a priority for the TMP

Some SMP features are yet to be completed, notably the extension of the Velachery to St. Thomas Mount stretch of the MRTS railway line. Another is the planned construction of 80 pedestrian subways (SMP says the share of cycle and walking trips is over 45% of which pedestrians alone account for 28%) but this has not materialised. In fact, although the SMP lays much emphasis on non-motorised transport, its proposals have largely remained on paper. A later attempt to create an elevated walkway in T. Nagar under the Smart City programme – which was not on the horizon when the SMP was drafted – remains half-done. The big factor for the TMP is political commitment and continuity through subsequent governments.

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These are early days for the TMP, and the CMDA has been promising wide consultations with the public and elected representatives before it is finalised. Its first attempt at gathering feedback is this online Citizen Survey. Among the first reactions was from the disability sector, which pointed to almost no progress since the 1990s on accessibility in public spaces and transport. At the same first consultation, LGBTQI representatives highlighted the need to incorporate their concerns.

The TMP will be front and centre in the public space in the coming months. Millennial activists will make themselves heard on adapting future policies to a new era, one that poses extreme climate events as a serious threat to the aspirations of younger Chennai residents.

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