Considering how the city has turned out, it is obvious that development divides what geography unites.

What do the following facts reveal about Chennai? Of the 80 air-conditioned buses that ply in the city, only four operate in North Chennai. While new buses service the south, an RTI application revealed, most of the old ones are diverted to the north. There are hardly any malls or multiplexes in north Chennai.

When it comes to schools, the best ones are in the south. In 2006, when property prices were rapidly climbing, land at Royapuram, Kaladipet and Tiruvottriyur in North Chennai were priced at about Rs. 25 lakhs per ground (2400 sq.ft). The rent of an apartment of 1000 sq.ft in places such as V.O.C. Nagar in Tondiarpet was only Rs. 3500. Compared with this, properties in Adyar, Thiruvanmiyur and Besant Nagar in South Chennai were priced between Rs. 80 lakhs and Rs. 1 crore a ground. An apartment of about 1000 sq.ft fetched a minimum rent of less than Rs.10, 000.)

Differential growth

It appears that Chennai is split into two — a preferred South and an overlooked North. How did a city that was built almost anew more than 350 years ago grow into a divided city? Are these differences an inevitable consequence of history? Can we allow lower standards of living to continue in one part of the city while we pamper the other?

In the beginning there was no such division. The city was a relatively small place. The fort was the power centre and Georgetown was where the local inhabitants lived and traded.

The British rulers, who called Georgetown ‘black town', slowly moved in the suburbs, south and west of the fort and built grand bungalows. But this did not undermine Georgetown. It continued to function as a busy hub. The Central station, Government hospital, Victoria Public hall and Moore Market were key service points.

Even when the city grew towards Nungambakkam and Mamballam much later, people continued to refer to what is now known as north Chennai (north of Poonamalle High Road) as ‘Town'. During the 1960s and 1970s, most industrial projects were located north of Chennai. These heavy and polluting industries provided jobs and sustained the economy of the city.

Investments in North Chennai were more towards creating intercity highways, port development and building power plants. Despite a large number of people living here, the place was never considered a residential neighborhood.

South Chennai developed differently and enjoyed consistent investment as a residential area. Wide roads, large housing plots and many parks were created. When the city's economic base shifted to IT and services, South Chennai was chosen as the new destination. East Coast Road and Old Mahabalipuram Road were developed as the new icons of the aspiring Chennai.

Many cities elsewhere have seen similar development trajectories, but they were sensitive, conscientious and improved other parts of the city, particularly the old ones. North Chennai with many old buildings and history could have been reinvented as a pedestrian city, a heritage place and a charming old quarter of a progressive city. But it did not happen. Such a planning approach was overlooked and all attention was on South Chennai.

Feeling left out

In 2006, a few days before the Chennai Corporation ward elections, The Hindu interviewed a section of voters in North Chennai. Most of them felt that their wards had hardly gained anything in the past decade.

“It is still a curse to live in North Chennai if one compares it to the central and southern parts of the city. From basic hygiene to maintenance of roads, North Chennai is not really shining like the rest of the city,” remarked Y. Antony Rajarajan, convenor of North Chennai Citizen's Forum to The Hindu then. After almost five years, with the next ward election nearing, this feeling still persists.

City is not a homogenous entity and it can have multiple parts each with a distinctive character. But a distinction has to be made between variety and inequality. What is being pointed out here is urban inequality, caused by insensitve development and its consequences. A sustainable and peaceful future of the city will depend on how quickly it bridges this urban divide.

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A. SrivathsanJune 28, 2012