Chennai of the past was certainly a better planned city than the present is. This is a fair assessment, borne out of facts and not another retrograde nostalgic trip. Let me explain:

It is normal practice among planners to assess the growth of a city after every decade and try to find ways to intelligently manage its future. About five decades ago, in 1960, the managers of Chennai reviewed the status and felt that the city's population had substantially increased. The pressure was visible – congestion on the roads, and an acute shortage of houses. They proposed a simple, direct and sensible solution.

On August 4, 1961, the government decided to plan for an additional population of 3.5 lakhs. New neighbhourhoods in West Madras, North Madras, South Madras and Kodambakkam-Pudoor were proposed. About Rs. 5 crore was allocated and about 4,000 acres of land were acquired. Compact layouts were prepared, a good road network was put in place, a mix of housing types were provided for and spaces for schools and community activities were earmarked. By 1968, the neighbhourhoods were up.

Many may not know them by their original names, but their current names are popular. The West Madras neighbhourhod was christened Anna Nagar; South came to be known as Indira Nagar, Sastri Nagar and Besant Nagar; Kodambakkam-Pudoor became K.K. Nagar and Ashok Nagar. There can be no argument that these areas are some of the best places to live in the city.

Look at the product of the present – Rajiv Gandhi Salai or OMR as it is popularly known.

OMR, conceptulaised in 1999, is like a badly cooked pizza – with a burnt crust and soggy inside. Developments are limited to, or hug the only road in place, leaving a huge amount of hinterland underdeveloped.

It is a 45 km road meant for moving vehicles that masquerades as a place to live in. If you step 200 metres either to the west or the east of OMR there is hardly any development. No interior roads; not many schools; malls and multiplexes try to pass for community places; people are forced to commute long hours because of the ribbon development; services have to span great distances and there is no sense of place. This is the most inefficient way to develop the city. Forget expertise, what happened to commonsense?

Chennai planners may argue that in the past, the government was able to acquire large tracts of land and plan a compact city. This is not possible anymore, and hence it should be left to market forces. But the fact is, private developments only offer gated colonies and not a collective city. Inside the gates the layouts are planned, but once you leave them, the city around is a nightmare.

What is the solution? The Gujarat planning model offers a way forward.

In Gujarat, lands needed to create a new neighborhood are first identified. Property owners temporarily hand over the land to authorities, who in turn, plan the infrastructure grid and create public amenities. The developed land is then re-divided into parcels and handed back to the owners in proportion to the original holdings. The amount of land lost in the process is compensated for, after deducting the development cost.

Though this model has not been in use for a while in Gujarat, the Tamil Nadu planners picked it up only last year. However, we are yet to see it in practice in Chennai.

Planning needs an overview of the situation and public interest must lead the decision. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the State alone can deliver this and that markets cannot. In the past, Chennai has been at the forefront of innovative planning ideas. It is time the city planers get proactive and regain their cutting edge thinking.

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