Can you imagine that an acre of land in T. Nagar once cost a mere Rs. 910? This was the price fixed by the government of Madras when it decided to acquire about 540 acres of private land to create a new housing scheme in a place called Mambalam.
In 1923, the town planning trust felt that the city was congested and faced housing shortage and wanted to address these issues. It prepared a housing scheme spread over 1,600 acres of land. The bulk of this land was to be obtained by breaching the Mylapore and Nungambakkam tanks and draining the water. While the government was excited about the proposal, some of the Madras Corporation Councillors and members of the public opposed it.
R. Sreenivasachari, The Hindu correspondent, wrote a long perceptive criticism of the scheme, which was published on March 5, 1923. He raised questions why such large fertile agricultural lands were to be acquired and the tanks breached. He found the project with just one house an acre favouring the rich and said it failed to take advantage of the existing railway line.
In response, Ronald Dann, Director, Town Planning, issued a rejoinder and defended the scheme. While he dismissed some of the comments as speculation, he agreed to increase the number of houses. However, he expressed his inability to get the station shifted and take advantage of it.
The Corporation Council also witnessed lively debates. Some of the Councillors opposed the scheme, saying it was a lavish scheme. They did not want it to be taken up when places such as Georgetown were still suffering from inadequate water supply.
However, the Corporation finally agreed to take up the scheme for execution on certain conditions. It committed to develop only 600 acres of land, received government funds and not to be bounded by any time-frame. The government agreed and the work commenced in 1924.
The required land was not fully acquired even in 1928, but work continued. The key moment arrived on November 8, 1928 when Panagal Park, one of the focuses of the scheme, spread over four-and-a-half acres was completed at a cost of Rs.10,000. It was inaugurated by the then Governor Lord Goschen who observed that though the original scheme was meant for only the rich, things had changed since the advent of motor buses and improved access to the centre of Madras.
The scheme is now altered to accommodate middle classes as well, he explained
How Mambalam came to be identified as west and east Mambalam and how the east became T. Nagar is another story.