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Singara Chennai 2.0 gets many things conceptually right. It has a stated priority for parks and playgrounds for which outlays were approved for 2022-23. As the city is returning to healthy levels of economic activity after COVID-19, it’s good to have more open public spaces. The Singara Chennai plan indicates a boost in revenues that can make more things possible. But the scheme that sets out to “beautify” the city according to Chief Minister M K Stalin’s early goals to make Chennai another Singapore makes little impact in crucial areas.
In the latest round of announcements, the Greater Chennai Corporation has talked of turning the stately Victoria Public Hall opposite the Park Railway Station and next to Ripon Building on EVR Periyar Salai into a tourist attraction. It devotes a staggering Rs 32.6 crore to turn Victoria Public Hall into a museum. The colonial-era building of 1887 looks bright and inviting even now, after the Central Square project cleaned up the entire stretch along with the Metro Rail construction. It is unclear what the significant amount of additional money will be spent on.
Another important project included in the latest round of funding for Singara Chennai is to develop sponge parks. If done right, the rainwater in the neighbourhood of these parks will flow into percolation areas and avert flooding. Funding agency TUFIDCO said in November 2022 that it had received proposals for Rs 5.6 crore worth of sponge parks, besides Rs 3.57 crore for parks (adding pebble-surface walks, yoga platform, sitting benches, paintings) and Rs 4.72 crore for playfields (football, volleyball, badminton courts) for 2022-23. Of course, the financial year is nearing the end in March, and much work still needs to be done to utilise these funds. Another Rs 8.31 crore is to be spent on beautifying bridges in the city and Rs 13 crore to upgrade crematoria.
Another important project included in the latest round of funding for Singara Chennai is to develop sponge parks. If done right, the rain water in the neighbourhood of these parks will flow into percolation areas and avert flooding
Where it falters
Beautification is just the icing on the cake. For a lot of inner-city Chennai localities, there is no base to beautify. A long spell of civic neglect has left several areas broken, without usable walking infrastructure and reliable bus transport connectivity, and with footpaths and carriageways encroached upon by commercial establishments. During the past decade buildings were built and expanded haphazardly, violating building rules. Old city areas such as Mylapore and Triplicane have been abandoned to congestion and pollution, while the relatively newer localities that developed after the 1970s, such as Kodambakkam, Vadapalani, Virugambakkam, Choolaimedu, Anna Nagar West and Mogappair, to name a few, are at breaking point because of poor civic attention. The suburbs are worse off. It has not helped that there has been a two-wheeler and car ownership boom, crowding a city not designed to handle such numbers.
Chennai’s weather during 2023 and even 2024 seems uncertain. The forecast so far is for a hot 2023 and perhaps hotter 2024, based on whether a severe El Nino will set in. The GCC, ruled by the DMK, was faced with the twin challenges of COVID-19 fallout in 2021-22 and the crippling rains of 2021. Yet, the vision for the future, the Singara Chennai plan, has been influenced more by ideas of beautification, than system-wide improvements required because of many years of neglect, particularly since 2016 until fresh elections were held in 2022, by which time the population had also grown.
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As Inmathi has pointed out in the past, the large vehicular base in Chennai needs to be turned into a revenue opportunity by the GCC and suburban Corporations and Municipalities. Parking fees collected can be used for creation of walking infrastructure, a far more extensive bus service, designated off-road parking areas and community facilities such as affordable wedding halls, parks, playfields, new water-harvesting structures and urban gardens with a horticultural focus.
The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) which runs the Climate Centre for Cities, has held up Chennai as an example of a city working to become climate-smart. One of the ways this is to be done, the NIUA says, is through its Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) Policy. While the NMT policy is now well-thumbed and extensively cited, its effects are not felt on Chennai’s streets. This is a priority that the Stalin government should move up the checklist for 2023-24.
The NIUA says in its assessment issued in 2021, that the Chennai NMT policy will measure success along the following lines: Increase in footpath coverage, increase in share of trips for walkers and cyclists, increased public transport share in all trips, and decrease in personal vehicle kilometres travelled.
To any resident or visitor, these metrics are evidently far away from achieving healthy scores. For example, NIUA says Chennai’s footpath coverage is 17.03%, showing the glaring mismatch between promise of a Singara Chennai and performance at the GCC. Chennai’s civic agencies have also dragged their feet on regularising hawkers and street vending under the Tamil Nadu Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood, Regulation of Street Vending and Licensing) Scheme, 2015, which has led to massive loss of revenue to the government and enrichment of local politicians and officials.
A long spell of civic neglect has left several areas broken, without usable walking infrastructure and reliable bus transport connectivity, and with footpaths and carriageways encroached upon by commercial establishments
Needs will, not money alone
Chennai’s focus has turned to the statutory Area Sabhas, which will function as part of the system of checks and balances at the level of civic wards, and be capable of restraining corrupt councillors, influence-peddlers and vested interests, and to highlight local problems.
Yet, as the NMT policy shows, a declaration of intent does not automatically translate into results. Also, the State government is juggling different priorities such as part-privatising the urban bus service under World Bank conditions, and to streamline the last mile connectivity stipulated under the Motor Vehicles Act. It has, sadly, tied itself into knots over its reluctance to implement the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and national Bus Code which require all civic facilities including buses to be accessible to persons with disabilities (thus Chennai MTC is unable to change its fleet quickly and runs a lot of junk buses).
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The forecast so far is for a hot 2023 and perhaps hotter 2024, based on whether a severe El Nino will set in, tossing up the global weather system. The civic imperative is clear for Stalin and the GCC: use the good months to speed up a genuine Singara Chennai plan.
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