If Chennai wants property prices to stabilise, it should pay far greater attention to developing sub-cities, says Vaishna Roy

In Chennai, locations inside the city have always had far higher rental and capital values vis-à-vis suburban areas. Compare this to, say, Bangalore, a neighbouring city where real estate growth has been steadily high. Bangalore has seen a proliferation of highly developed housing colonies and communities that are removed from the city centre.

Real estate consultants talk of different growth drivers that exist across cities. Whereas residential demand and rates in Chennai are driven by location, cities like Bangalore and Mumbai see prices and demand driven primarily by project specs and amenities because a certain amount of location-specific development can be taken for granted.

Some of the most impressive suburban development is seen in Delhi. The capital has seen a surge in sub-cities like Dwarka, Rohini and Narela. In its recently announced Master Plan, Delhi announced that it will develop five more sub-cities by 2021. To avoid the criticism that land-owners and farmers are inadequately compensated, Delhi Development Authority (DDA) recently announced a ‘land-pooling’ scheme similar

to the private joint development options available in Chennai today. The scheme will allow farmers and land-owners to pool in their land, which will then be developed by DDA. Land owners will get back a substantial portion of the developed land, which they can then sell or use.

More than anything else, the phenomenal success of the Metro Rail in Delhi has allowed this parallel development to happen. The main problem that suburban development in Chennai has faced so far is the deplorable lack of social and civic infrastructure. There are no good schools, motorable roads, commuting networks, entertainment centres, or convenience stores.

More shockingly, basic necessities such as piped water, sewage and drainage systems, interior roads and pavements, street lighting and policing have been ignored. This is true even of suburbs such as Perungudi or Toraipakkam that have been on the radar for the last decade or so, riding piggy-back on the growth of IT and ITES businesses.

According to studies, infrastructure development in a new area should typically take three to five years, but that thumb rule has been turned on its head here. The lack of good suburbs has meant an increased demand for purchase and rent of city-centric properties, whose prices in turn are rising to astronomic levels. Ideally, for Chennai to see this prospect changing, it needs a competitive micro market environment, where suburbs compete with each other in the conveniences they can offer. Each one must be fully self-sufficient in services, amenities and luxuries, and yet connected to the main metropolis by a smooth commuting corridor.

For middle-class, white-collar workers in any part of the city to buy a home in the suburbs, they need to know that first, they can get to work and back home quickly; and second, that their children and home-makers can get all they need close to the home. This means not just schools but also a variety of add-ons such as maths tutors, idli batter, dance classes, parks, dinner takeaways and tailor shops.

None of this support structure will migrate to the suburbs unless it is made convenient and cost-efficient for it to do so. This means simultaneous development of low-cost housing, drinking water facilities, sewage, regular power supply, wholesale fruit, vegetable, fish and meat markets and more — in short, the active presence of government and administration.

Chennai today needs big suburban communities and townships. As of now, the few straggling townships that have come up are stranded like islands in the middle of nowhere.

It makes little difference whether the projects have electronic garage doors or temperature-regulated Jacuzzis — without connecting infrastructure they will have few takers and will remain weekend homes for the luxury market.

Despite all the experience of the past decades, city planning authorities are still happy to sit back and allow the suburbs to mushroom or languish any which way. For large-scale and planned suburban migration to come true, the city needs to see the government work actively with independent city-planners and consultants and come up with viable and thoughtful Master Plans. And it needs imaginative developers who will think of more than just profits.