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The appointment of P K Sekar Babu as the Minister in-charge of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) in February 2023 was seen by the real estate sector as a focused attempt by the DMK to get someone with core knowledge of the city to help steer its expansion. The Chennai Metropolitan Area is now spread across 5,094 sq km, a giant sprawl encompassing four revenue districts.
In his policy note for the CMDA, presented for 2023-24, Babu has serialised the plans to pump in significant resources into development priorities for various locations. These include a grid of roads that will provide easier connectivity to upcoming suburbs spread over 201 revenue villages; new towns development in Minjur, Thirumazhisai, Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu and Mamallapuram; opening of the Kilambakkam bus terminus; bus termini for Kuthambakkam, Chengalpattu and Mamallapuram, and opening of the long-awaited Velachery-St. Thomas Mount MRTS Phase II by December 2023.
The macro budgeting indicates that the outlays for CMDA’s activities touch Rs 10,065 crore of which loans constitute Rs 8,015 crore, and Rs 2,000 crore is allocated under capital account.
Traditionally, CMDA and its former avatar, MMDA, has been viewed as a revenue-deficient, but extremely powerful body that has constantly shifted its focus to Chennai’s margins as the theatre of planning and urban expansion. Yet, in the phase before economic liberalisation, the focus was on building large-scale housing through the TN Housing Board and experimenting with satellite city concepts that effectively served to raise real estate values though not livability indices. Both Maraimalai Nagar and Manali New Town projects of the 1980s faltered badly, since they were attempts to push the city boundaries to the extremes without a concomitant plan for infrastructure building or creation of civic capability.
The phenomenon of prospecting for land and raising its values in the suburbs has continued unabated, with no discernible influence of CMDA planning policy, which has kept its focus on building bus stands and markets. Amorphous suburban gated community growth in the midst of panchayats has been the norm
In the era of economic liberalisation and neo-liberal policies witnessed since 1991, the focus on real estate has sharpened. Earlier, in the 1980s, the promotion of real estate development in Valmiki Nagar and Neelankarai through official policies led to a reported hike in land values of 100 times. In the liberalised phase, this phenomenon of prospecting for land and raising its values in the suburbs has continued unabated, with no discernible influence of CMDA planning policy, which has kept its focus on building bus stands and markets. Amorphous suburban gated community growth in the midst of panchayats has been the norm.
The CMDA’s infamous role in regularising unlawfully built commercial real estate is well known. In Minister Sekar Babu’s speech, the role of the “Regularisation Unit” is articulated specially, although it is a perverse scheme instituted under Section 113-A of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971. The CMDA has not given up its effort to remove the illegality of unauthorised or deviated constructions, although it is under Madras High Court orders not to pass orders on applications for regularisation for pre-2007 structures. Yet, the court has allowed CMDA to accept and process the applications.
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To Chennai residents, the role of the CMDA in an era of fast urbanisation appears abstruse and ill-defined, although since 2021, the planning agency has said it would work on key factors such as defining the extent of important roads, ridding them of encroachments, using the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) to improve last mile connectivity, regularise feeder vehicles such as share autos, and working to improve commons such as sponge parks, parks, pedestrianisation and so on.
As a favoured model for Chennai, which Chief Minister M K Stalin has in the past spoken of turning the city into a Singapore, the island country has very defined methods on urbanisation with a focus on allocating land for housing, earmarking commons, commercial spaces and public transport expansion. The CMDA remains weak in all these areas.
The Singapore Land Authority uses its powers to bring about orderly development by keeping tight control of the commons spaces, apportioning parcels for various functions including building of bus termini, commercial complexes, social services, houses and parks. Although the legal regime is strict to the point of being fully command-controlled and lacks avenues for democratic public participation, the principle is that the state has a good sense of keeping large tracts usable for public purposes without vested interests, corrupt officials and politicians carving up finite resources such as land for their own motives.
In Chennai, elite and commercial capture of real estate in the city’s core has led to speculative investments in suburban lands. Sekar Babu’s note acknowledges that indirectly and explains the importance of building new towns in the neighbouring districts. Ironically, the CMDA does not prescribe livability metrics for the layouts that it approves — entirely unlike Singapore — and the small panchayats, town panchayats or municipalities where they are located have no obligation to create even basic infrastructure like roads, storm water, sewage and sullage management and quality power. An approved layout makes little difference to the buyer.
In Sholinganallur, on the famed IT corridor (now reaching saturation point due to real estate speculation as Chennai Metro Rail is awaited there), the areas around the local lakes have all been allowed to be claimed by gated communities. Only small remnants of these reedbeds and lakes remain.
CUMTA, the transport regulator, has been visibly slow on transport connectivity, while Metro and MRTS projects are beset by delays — one of the Phase II Metro lines touching Madhavaram and Taramani is now expected to be ready only by 2028, a full five years away, while the section between Porur and Kodambakkam Power House is put off to 2026. No sense of alarm has been expressed by Stalin’s government.
The CMDA has said it would work on key factors such as defining the extent of important roads, ridding them of encroachments, using the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) to improve last mile connectivity, regularise feeder vehicles such as share autos, and working to improve commons such as sponge parks, parks, pedestrianisation and so on
Bus transport to emerging suburbs has been hit by failure to modernise and expand. The latest issues are the refusal of Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) to buy low floor buses in sufficient numbers as per court orders, and the Union government’s requirement that vehicles over 15 years be scrapped, the latter affecting many transport corporations that are operating junk buses of that vintage.
The big question for CMDA is whether it can make its Area Development Units capable of working with the four Municipal Corporations, 12 Municipalities, 14 Town Panchayats, 22 Panchayat Unions all spread across over 1,321 revenue villages now in the Chennai Metropolitan Area, to raise all-round performance and improve infrastructure.
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The World Bank, which has been driving Chennai’s growth and policies from behind, must support an outcome report on which sectors and communities have benefited from CMDA’s Master Plans and CMA expansion strategies. How much commons has been conserved and how has the city’s resilience improved?
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