In Chennai, hope hovers on elevated tracks

R BALAJI | Updated on January 27, 2018 Published on March 07, 2016


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The city has failed in providing basic services. The challenge now is to deliver on its lofty plans

From the rooftop of the luxurious Hilton Chennai in Guindy, the view of the city ( picture at right) is somewhat more breath-taking than a street-level perspective may induce.

In the near distance, a sleek Metro train skids by on an elevated track, bearing with it the city residents’ heightened hopes for the network’s early completion to ease the too-frequent traffic gridlock that defines life in the 376-year-old city.

There is a fair bit of greenery too; and remarkably for a city that otherwise seems inadequately planned, there is even a semblance of order to the tenement blocks and commercial complexes that meet the eye.

Descend from those heights, however, and the vastly different reality on the streets hits home with the garishness of an outsized cut-out of some Kazhagam leader or the other.

A flood of memories

When Chennai received news –– late in January –– that it had been picked as one of 20 cities for redevelopment as a smart city, most residents greeted it with a cynical shrug. Memories of the apocalyptic floods in November-December were too fresh in people’s minds for them to rejoice in any aspect of urban living –– or even just the promise of a better tomorrow.

The irony is that Chennai experiences water scarcity at most times.

Strikingly, therefore, flood management and consistent supply of quality water are both big components of the pan-city proposals as envisaged under the Smart City Project.

In addition, the project promises better and cleaner roads, electricity supply without outages, an efficient sewerage system, road spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, and efficient delivery of public services.

Among the pan-city proposals being taken up is a move to encourage greater use of public transport and non-motorised transport to ease traffic congestion.

These and other proposals, for area-based development of the Central Business District of Theagaraya Nagar, were drawn up after extensive public consultations. The State government appointed JLL Property Consultants India in association with Townland Consultants and Tata Consulting Engineers to assist the Chennai Corporation in preparing the proposal.

The implementation challenge

But elaborate though these plans are, urban planning experts reckon that the success of the project will hinge on the political will to drive it, the capability of the government agencies –– particularly the local bodies –– to implement the project, as also the private sector’s ability, and the citizens’ responsibilities to share the burden.

Nothing illustrates these challenges better than the T Nagar neighbourhood ( picture, below right). The area is a network of congested roads, temples, parks, schools, offices, wedding halls, and shops selling everything from silk saris to jewellery to household appliances to books to fruits and vegetables.

Read more about Chennai

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Public participation is critical: Raj Cherubal, Director–Projects, Chennai City Connect

Walk through the crowded streets braving the traffic, and you cannot help but notice the overflowing drains –– and the ubiquitous generators roaring outside shops and apartments owing to power outages.

According to A Shankar of JLL, the idea is to provide assured, quality water supply and electricity, including renewable energy, sensor-based LED street lights, waste water recycling, waste management and free-flowing drains. IT tools will be invoked to manage traffic, provide information at key junctions and create WiFi hotspots.

Capacity-building is the key

According to a senior official closely associated with the project, designing, funding and capacity-building will be key issues in rendering Chennai a smart city.

But the city today does not provide even the most basic amenities. And officials point out that these projects will have to be financially viable if they are to be sustainable. Funding will not be an issue if the project is “bankable,” they say.

The key to that is in ensuring that end-users pay for services: a reasonable tariff for water and sewerage services, for instance. But given the track record of service delivery, none of the utilities makes for a business case, points out an official.

Will residents pay a higher tariff for assured quality, 24x7 water supply?

Is there political will to push through with user charges, given that that hasn’t happened in the past two decades? Electricity tariffs were hiked a couple of years ago, but only because the power utility was nearly bankrupt, and the government was pushed to the wall.

Officials say that it is important to raise awareness that public goods and services and infrastructure cannot be subsidised without end. Of course, the tariff structure can be graded to ensure the poor are not overly affected.

New skills needed

Another challenge is that the utilities and the local bodies need to upgrade their capabilities and learn to work with the private sector in handling large infrastructure projects. They are currently understaffed and do not have the skills to monitor large projects. The system needs to be decentralised to speed up project implementation.

Indian cities have a capacity problem, points out Raj Cherubal, Director-Projects, Chennai City Connect. “There are coordination problems, given the multiplicity of agencies.”

Chennai’s residents will hope that these challenges can be overcome and that the Smart City Project will provide them the enhanced quality of life that seems to have eluded them thus far.

Click here to read about other Smart Cities

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Published on March 07, 2016
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