Nostalgia G.R. Dattatri on laying out a blueprint for contemporary Chennai, measures taken to decongest various areas and how the idea of an integrated housing scheme came about

To the bright-eyed young man who had moved to the city from the cool climes of Ooty, the Madras of 1955 seemed to have both the intangible charm of the countryside, as well as the amenities of urbanity. I was joining as the Town Planning Officer, and the metropolis had not begun to take shape yet. Not even the most prophetic amongst us thought that the 20 lakh population of the city would one day grow into about a crore — the highest, wildest estimates had gone only up to 40 lakh!

The future of a few areas including Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar, Anna Nagar, Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur was being decided, that these would be the residential neighbourhoods in the years to come. Areas such as Teynampet were cloaked in expansive coconut groves and verdant paddy fields; Island Grounds, an enormous stretch of green that allowed the city to breathe.

But, by the time the early 1960's had rolled around, industrial estates were beginning to mushroom in Ambattur and Guindy. The population surged like the evening tide. People from all over the State were beginning an exodus towards towns that had no means to support them. Something needed to be done, and the Housing Board was constituted, to see that they were given at least a roof over their heads.

Now this meant that we needed a better idea of the city, which called for a land-use survey. That was when we realised that the last time a survey had been done had been more than 30 years ago! The enormity of our task began to sink in. But, with a bevy of officers as charged as live wires, and bureaucrats deeply concerned about the city, work was smooth, and filled with life. More than everything else, we were nascent in our Independence — the feeling of being in control of the land, the pride in our country, was still very powerful. It brought people together, made every hour of work worthwhile.

The blueprint of contemporary Chennai was beginning to emerge. But by now, the city's outposts were reeling under the effects of relentless migration. To decongest the city, the market in George Town was shifted to Koyambedu — the vegetables, flowers, steel, the textiles, all of it. Bus terminals, truck terminals, all began to find their way into the plans — the ones in Madhavaram, Guindy, and Koyambedu included. That was also when the first plans for the MRTS were laid, the original plan being to link the beach with St. Thomas Mount, and eventually with Madhavaram.

But housing remained an insurmountable problem in the city. The idea of an integrated system of housing, meant for all classes — unlike the gated communities of today — possibly for the first time in the country, was beginning to take root. And, build not just houses; but schools, play grounds and community centres, besides a bathroom and toilet in each and every household. They came up in Arumbakkam, Kodungaiyur and Villivakkam; about 12,000 plots that helped ease the passage of thousands of families.

The slum in Vyasarpadi was home to thousands of repatriates from Burma who had resettled in India. The policy of development of slums was quite different then — it was in situ improvement. Which is to say, they were not relocated; but roads, storm-water drains, electricity lines, public toilets, water taps, crèches and pre-schools would be built in them. Vyasarpadi got a high school, a clinic, even a volleyball court! Kodungaiyur and Vilivakkam also saw these development projects; and in all, more than 25,000 families made these restored spaces their home.

With the IT boom, the city began to spiral towards inhospitability. Many of the old plans fell by the wayside. There had been cycle and pedestrian tracks, subways, all on the cards. We wanted the street hawkers to remain, the slum dwellers to be granted their rights. An inclusive city. But, it remains a great satisfaction to know that in some small way, we helped soothe the pains of an ailing city.

BIO: Gangadhar Rao Dattatri Born in 1930, the former Chief Urban Planner for Madras has more than half-a-century of experience in various regional, town and urban planning. He guided the preparation and implementation of the First Master Plan for the city. Amongst other responsibilities he has shouldered are that of the National Consultant for the United Nations' Centre for Human Settlements in Nairobi, and Advisor in Sri Lanka; and as Advisor in the planning of Auroville. He is presently a Trustee of the NGO SUSTAIN, a citizens' alliance for sustainable living and the environment.

I REMEMBER: When the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority was established, we were graciously housed in one of the residences of Arcot Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, the noted educationist, physician and longest serving Vice-Chancellor of the Madras University, on Poonamallee High Road. We worked blissfully, unaware of the strange looks that several of our visitors were giving us. Till one day, one of them gave our office the up-down, and said, ‘You do know that your office is the surgery room of the Mudaliar?'