The city's favourite getaway highway is now 10 years old. In a series of reports, The Hindu will examine how the development of this 113-km long stretch has had a far-reaching impact on Chennai and its people. Deepa H. Ramakrishnan on the journey so far and the road ahead
The swanky East Coast Road, which influenced lifestyles and aspirations of Chennai, has turned 10. The 113-km long stretch from Akkarai to Puducherry, dotted with resorts and beach houses, became a toll facility in March 2002 and was upgraded into a two-lane road from a small winding road passing through 154 villages.
The next big change that the road is likely to witness is the proposed four-laning. The detailed project report to widen it further with a median up to Mamallapuram is in the final stages and is expected to be submitted to the State government soon by the Tamil Nadu Road Development Company (TNRDC), which manages the facility. The consultant is currently looking at the environmental aspects of the project.
TNRDC managing director P. Umanath said that the ECR as a project has fully served its intended objectives during this 10 year period. “Our future endeavours will be to make the road more user-friendly, minimise accidents and support initiatives to promote tourism.”
The ECR also has been a learning curve for the TNRDC. Its former director K.R. Viswanathan said that for TNRDC, the ECR was the first Build-Operate-Transfer project that showed the potential for road development and opened the door for the more ambitious IT Corridor project on the same model and commercialise it successfully.
The road was built in 1998 by interlinking and improving a series of small village roads that connected the fishing villages along the east coast. The idea was to create infrastructure, facilitate inter-state connectivity and boost tourist movement. But within two years, it started showing signs of distress, adversely affecting the quality of rides and safety of motorists. In 2000, the State government signed a concessionaire agreement with the TNRDC in order to improve the road.
When the road was being built initially, several environmentalists and NGOs, including Indian National Trust for Architecture and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), objected to it as many trees had to be cut, which they said would lead to indiscriminate groundwater extraction.
“We had also objected as there are habitations every 1.6 km or 2 km and that could lead to accidents, which has become a fact now. If the government is planning to develop the road, it should ensure that the development on both sides is controlled and eco-friendly,” said INTACH Ajit Koujalgi co-convenor, Pondicherry, who had filed a case in the 1990s against its widening. However, road experts say that widening is a must to avoid accidents. “Environmentalists and the communities along the road must be taken into confidence and a strategy must be worked out to widen the road. Otherwise it would only lead to more accidents,” said a source, who was involved in the first phase of development of the road.
The road sees a number of accidents every year. G. Thirumugan, a taxi driver, who goes on trips to Puducherry frequently, said that many drivers think twice before taking the road on weekends. “People drive at breakneck speed and with the many curves on the road, vehicles easily turn turtle,” he said.
According to statistics available with Chennai Traffic Police, last year alone there were 51 fatal and 122 non-fatal accidents on the ECR in the stretch leading up to Muttukaadu. According to TNRDC statistics, there is one accident daily and 10 to 15 fatal accidents in a year between Akkarai and Keezh Puthupattu near Puducherry.
Many like S. Surya, who is in the hospitality industry, take a break once in two weeks to hang out with friends at beach resorts on the ECR.
“I love to drive fast on the road. We no longer prefer to drive to Pondy as the prices of alcoholic beverages are not very different from that in Chennai. Instead we have our own hangouts. There are places that extend the courtesy of letting you bring your own alcohol for parties,” Surya said.
Apart from making people want to take a fast ride, the road has fuelled the development of real estate, beach resorts and other tourism development activities.
Markand Desai, a property developer, who invested on the eastern side of the ECR 32 years ago, said that it was the development of the road that led to the boom in real estate. “The price of land has increased by 25 percent every year. Now the road is home to many of Chennai's rich and famous. People also seem to know to spend money and enjoy the facilities.”