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Chennai’s corridor of unfulfilled promises

Sibi Arasu | Updated on January 16, 2018
The hindered road to progress: Though the IT corridor was meant to bring development to a larger region, it was built up without paying attention to essentials such as water supply and sewerage. Photo: M Karunakaran

The hindered road to progress: Though the IT corridor was meant to bring development to a larger region, it was built up without paying attention to essentials such as water supply and sewerage. Photo: M Karunakaran   -  The Hindu

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House on a lake: Velachery and the OMR have some of the largest waterbodies, including the Pallikaranai marshland, which is now extensively encroached upon. Photo: Shaju John

House on a lake: Velachery and the OMR have some of the largest waterbodies, including the Pallikaranai marshland, which is now extensively encroached upon. Photo: Shaju John

Matter of perception: The meme comparing the arterial roads of Velachery to Venice’s waterways

Matter of perception: The meme comparing the arterial roads of Velachery to Venice’s waterways

Once projected as neighbourhoods that held the key to the city’s future, the IT corridor and suburban Velachery are now specimens of skewed development

Chennai is a connoisseur of dark humour. Among the memes circulating on social media after the floods in December last year, was an image comparing the arterial roads of Velachery, inundated as it was with water and dotted with rescue boats, to Venice’s waterways.

Humour was the only silver lining in what was a season of disaster. As cyclone Vardah further wrecked Chennai, particularly its southern suburbs, and the IT corridor and Velachery for the second year in a row, failed promises gather attention again.

An enduring legacy of the Chennai floods is the devastating impact on the city’s real estate sector. Particularly so in the ravaged neighbourhoods such as Velachery and the adjoining Information Technology (IT) Corridor — the stretch that was once the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) and is now the epicentre for the city’s IT and IT-enabled services (ITES) companies.

A little over a decade ago, this stretch that runs parallel to the East Coast Road was carpeted with paddy fields and coconut groves, and lined by houses and small industry. Velachery, in the southwest of OMR, too was another “up and coming” area, largely criss-crossed by lakes. Residential plots were marked, but hardly any construction had begun. Around the Vijay Nagar bus stand, the centre of Velachery, there was little sign of the rampant urbanisation that was to come in the following years.

“I have always thought of Chennai as a city of corridors,” says A Srivathsan, a long-time observer of the city’s urban development and a professor at the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad. “The city planners never thought of building a silicon city or an enclave, as they wanted to stretch development to a larger region. But they didn’t think of developing integrated transport for office-goers nor did they build housing along with the offices. So people ended up commuting long distances every day.”

An ambitious beginning

Officially launched in 2008, the IT corridor project was split into two phases. The first involved constructing road and related infrastructure for a 20-km stretch, while the second phase, still underway, intends to extend this road a further 26 km. At no stage of the IT corridor project was priority given to development or land acquisition away from the arterial road.

Local panchayat bodies, mostly falling under neighbouring Kanchipuram district, were allowed to take decisions on land sale, constructions and usage. The Pallikaranai marshland, a 230 sq km freshwater marsh just off the IT corridor, was encroached upon extensively. Many of the lakes and ponds along the stretch, which were the traditional water sources for agriculture in the area, shared the same fate. While IT buildings, stray residential complexes and special economic zones allocated for the IT industry were constructed with great flair, the absence of an overarching authority led to haphazard development, wherein essentials such as water supply, sewerage and so on were left to local, private contractors.

It was only in 2011, when the Chennai Corporation expanded from 174 sq km to 426 sq km, that most regions that came under phase one of the IT corridor, and parts of Velachery, were brought under the city’s municipal body. Since then, the city corporation rules have applied to these regions too.

In the early 2000s, the Tamil Nadu government was trying to catch the booming software wave. It set up specialised bodies such as the IT Expressway Limited (ITEL) under the State’s road development corporation. The Central ministry of communication and information technology also pushed its Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) project, granting tax breaks to companies willing to set up business in the IT corridor.

Not surprisingly, the STPI in Tamil Nadu, alongside Maharashtra and Karnataka, generated more exports revenue than its peers in other States. The tax breaks, a key incentive, however expired in March 2011. Around the same time, the short-lived “golden era” of the IT corridor began to lose its sheen.

“Apart from the road, other related development was left to market forces. No thought was put into it and essentials were not considered important,” says Mahesh Radhakrishnan of the Madras Office for Architects and Designers. “Common sense seems to have been lacking. Now we’re in a situation where no one is happy, including the middle-income group, whom the project was meant to appease the most. The development of neighbourhoods like Velachery or the OMR was never planned and whatever little planning happened was short-sighted. We’re witnessing the results of that now.”

Many Chennai residents, including this writer’s family, had made Velachery and the IT corridor their home. “You have just wasted a lot of money,” was what a colleague told my father, V Arasu, when he bought land in Perungudi — an area more known for its dumpyard then, and which is now an integral part of the IT corridor on the southern periphery of Chennai. “I just thought it was affordable. We were looking for a place to build our home and Perungudi, with its lake and paddy fields, seemed like a good idea,” he told me. “I got a plot of land for ₹50,000 in 1990.”

A more recent influx followed the large-scale development of the corridor in the last decade. The IT sector offered jobs and the region promised a “safe, secure and luxurious environment” for its residents, if real-estate advertisements promoting investment in the region were to be believed. Chennai continues to be considered a viable alternative for young, white-collar as well as blue-collar jobseekers who do not want to set up lives in cities that are already saturated, such as Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru.

Anupam Kumar, who hails from Nagpur, has been living in the IT corridor and working at an office here for the last seven years. He says, “When I first came here, facilities were limited, but the road was very well-maintained and there was hardly any traffic.” All of that has changed drastically. “Now, there are more facilities, but the traffic has become horrible and even a light shower can inundate the road and residential areas completely. Even though things are getting worse, I still feel Chennai offers a more peaceful life than the other major metros,” says Kumar.

“What you should remember is that these areas were largely low-lying. The ground was marginally higher in some places, but even that was set amidst marshlands and lakes,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, a city-based environmentalist. “The city authorities kind of shot themselves in the foot. They developed it without any regard to hydraulics, and that was one of the primary reasons for waterlogging and the flooding of Velachery as well as the OMR.”

The 2015 floods was a turning point for the residents of these neighbourhoods. Velachery was particularly affected and the Army and disaster-relief personnel and volunteers had to step in with boats to rescue people stranded in their houses. It was not very different in most areas in and around the OMR either.

Before the floods, the neighbourhood, while chaotic, had managed to retain its status as the “next big thing” in Chennai’s real estate. That image was washed away overnight. “People need to understand that lakes, ponds and other waterbodies have great enviro-economic value to them,” says Arun Krishnamoorthy of the Environmental Foundation of India, which specialises in cleaning up and restoring waterbodies. Velachery and OMR have some of the largest waterbodies in and around Chennai, including the Pallikaranai marshland, now greatly encroached upon. “For me, the IT corridor is a model of how not to develop. There’s no long-term vision for the area and we paid the price for this last year. The worst part is, even after last year’s experience, we are no better off now,” says Krishnamoorthy.

As Vijaya Bhaskar, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies says, “The promise was that once big-ticket investments came in, it would create linkages and generate jobs, [but] this is only true to an extent when it comes to Chennai.” He adds, “When you create such infrastructure, basic public services are, for some reason, not considered important or critical, and that has been the biggest problem with Velachery and the IT corridor. From what I have seen of developers, once they have exhausted a certain area, they move onto another. That is what happened in Bengaluru. Here too, something similar is what’s likely to happen.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai

Published on December 16, 2016

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