Far-flung rural areas are redefining the boundaries of urban Chennai, reports Prince Frederick

It took around 20 years for Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) to move from a rural to an urban identity. The defining changes came only in the last eight of those years, when hovels gave way to high-rises and big brands built their businesses on the rubble of small-time shops.

When OMR was becoming noticeably upmarket, rural areas in the southern suburbs were unobtrusively turning urban, helped by the same forces of gentrification that shaped OMR. Urapakkam, for instance, got considerably gentrified in the last 10 years as a result of various special economic zone projects that have come up on Grand Southern Trunk (GST) Road.

“Twenty per cent of those living in Urapakkam work in the offices at Mahindra World City. Employees of SRM Medical College and SRM Hospital in Kattankulathur have also moved into this locality. Its population is a mix of south and north Indians. Urapakkam is becoming increasingly attractive to commercial establishments. In nine months, two banks have set up offices here. There are four ATMs. Nilgiris and Adyar Bakery have moved into the neighbourhood,” says O.A. Srinivasan, a consultant-researcher with market research agencies and a resident of the neighbourhood.

If the gentry move into a neighbourhood, will the interests of the locals be protected?

Gentrification generally raises the bugbear of displacement for the locals, especially the economically weak. But in the majority of neighbourhoods in the extended areas of the Corporation and the southern suburbs where gentrification is at work, both the newcomers and the natives seem to have settled in comfortably; and their interests seem to be taken care of.

OMR, with its wide variety of eating places, is a classic example. It offers star hotels and popular restaurants and also relatively less expensive eateries. While aggressively wooing the gentry, Urapakkam stays loyal to its original populace — the number of petty shops is proof.

K.P. Subramanian, former professor, Urban Engineering Department, Anna University, welcomes the fact that these neighbourhoods strike a balance among various sections of its population.

He, however, thinks most neighbourhoods on GST Road and OMR are built on faulty development model. And he believes that this basic flaw, when combined with gentrification, can lead to alienation of the economically weak.

“GST and OMR are influenced by ribbon development, where growth is concentrated only along the corridor. Even at its best, it will not cover more than two rows beyond the corridor. This development may appear innocuous and may even seem to promote the idea of rural-urban connect. However, the major damage resulting from ribbon development is the rise in prices of land in the undeveloped areas, simply because they are proximate to the corridor of development,” says Subramanian.

Examples of lands selling at rates disproportionate to the real value abound in such areas. “Eight years ago, a 2,400-sq.ft. land in Kumaran Kudil, an area in Thoraipakkam, went for Rs. 4.5 lakh. As a result of the development on the IT Corridor, the same land now would fetch 30 to 40 times as much,” says V. Shanmugam, a resident of OMR for 25 years who sells high-duty batteries.

The effects of ribbon development can be seen in Urapakkam too. Completion of a rail over-bridge project has led to disproportionate rise in land values. Even areas with no intrinsic value fetch high prices for their lands. “Land prices in Urapakkam began to go up when the rail over-bridge project was commissioned two years ago,” says ‘Puratchi’ Mohan, a resident of the area for 30 years.

“Gentrification has helped land-owning, long-time residents of the neighbourhoods on OMR. With demand for land in the vicinity of OMR up, they sold part of their properties and improved their lifestyles,” says Shanmugam.

Subramaniam points out that the land-owning section is in the minority. “Only 15 to 30 per cent of any population will own lands. The deadly combination of ribbon development and unbridled gentrification will push up land prices and rents. Unless there are measures to ensure their protection, the landless will be shunted out of a gentrified neighbourhood. Are we alive to such long-term effects of gentrification and willing to look out for the less privileged in our midst? That is a question worth asking.”