2012 - Looking Back In the second of a three-part series on the ups and downs of 2012, Prasanth Radhakrishnan focuses on the civic infrastructure and government machinery that run Chennai

It was a bumpy ride, this 2012. In between lurching from the impact of a cyclone, gingerly navigating inundated roads and humming along to songs on FM channels while stuck in traffic jams, Chennaites increasingly registered the fact that their city was quite a mess. Meanwhile, hope loomed in the background as work on the Metro Rail made headway and an array of ambitious schemes seemed likely to transform the face of the city.

Chennai, this year, was still struggling with its increased size. The seven new zones (252 sq. km.) added to the city last year brought with them fresh demands for infrastructure. The fact that tenders for the road grid in zones such as Tiruvottiyur and Ambattur were not finalised for nearly six months revealed the challenges involved.

Civic woes aplenty

And, then of course, there was the question of garbage. If January saw residents relieved over Ramky Enviro Engineers taking over from the much-reviled Neel Metal Fanalca, the later months saw this sentiment sour as complaints of poor services poured in, ultimately leading to the agency being issued a show-cause notice. And, it’s not conservancy alone, garbage disposal too, remained a problem with residents reeling from the pollution caused by fires breaking out in Kodangaiyur and Perungudi dumping yards.

The city also faced a double-headed water problem this year. While on the one hand, there was a rain deficit of at least 40 cm, on the other, extensive waterlogging in most parts of the city exposed the failure of the stormwater drain network. With the ambitious stormwater drain revival project, worth Rs. 1,475 crore, only 45 per cent complete, residents in many areas pooled in their own funds to repair roads.

Even arterial roads such as Jawaharlal Nehru Salai and Poonamallee High Road were not spared. The ineptitude of the civic body that led to dug-up drains and washed-away roads was perhaps what angered citizens most. The proposal for a fifth reservoir for the city in Tiruvallur district will definitely improve the situation but the water scenario remains delicately perched as was highlighted by the tankers’ strike in September that caused great hardship to residents.

Dengue scare

And with mounting garbage piles and waterlogging in the city, the mosquitoes were not far behind. As the number of dengue cases nearly doubled in Chennai and the northern districts, the civic authorities kept a tight lid on information, fuelling panic, with residents thronging hospitals at the slightest sign of a fever.

Meanwhile, the civic body authorities shifted the blame on hospitals for failing to report cases in time calling into question the direct health reporting system which was supposed to streamline reporting of diseases. With half the wards in the Corporation reporting dengue cases and at least three suspected deaths, what also stood out was the inadequacy of mosquito-control operations. Despite a slew of initiatives to involve private firms and NGOs, mosquito menace was rampant even towards the end of the year when the mosquito density is usually low.

The situation worsened with the introduction of power outages as residents began storing water in large quantities providing breeding ground for the dengue vector Aedes aegypti. Power shortage was another major bugbear for Chennaiites, especially those in the southern suburbs, where sporadic protests broke out in front of Tangedco offices. Irate residents complained of power outages that, on occasions, stretched for days, with hardly a response from officials.

Metro for future

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The metro rail project made steady progress with work on the first two stations — CMBT and Koyambedu — almost complete. With an international workforce from South Africa, Russia and China along with Chinese tunnel boring machines, the city got a glimpse of the latest expertise in the field.

Despite hiccups such as the mishap on a construction site that led to the death of a labourer and conflicts between Chennai Metro Rail Limited and the contractor, Gammon International, the project, by and large, has made the city proud although commuters were obviously put to great discomfort by the traffic jams.

Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) which faced a fresh set of challenges with the ongoing Metro work however, did not cover itself in glory. The dramatic accident on Gemini Flyover in June and the death of four students who were travelling on the footboard of an MTC bus in December, among others, brought the MTC’s functioning under the scanner. With just over 3,600 buses (as compared to Bangalore’s 6,000), overworked staff, and sparse services in the northern parts of the city, MTC remained perhaps the one essential mode of transport that commuters would have loved to avoid.

Rebirth for the Arch

2012 was also the year of the Anna Arch. A ubiquitous landmark, the structure was to be demolished to make way for a Rs. 117-crore flyover. But technical difficulties in bringing it down coupled with residents’ protests gave the Arch a new lease of life. Rs. 64 lakh later, the Arch was back in its original position; the plan for the flyover was modified though — there will now be two of them.

For the Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Elevated Expressway though, 2012 was not too great. The Rs. 1,815-crore project ground to a halt this year with the Water Resources Department and National Highways Authority of India officials arguing over the alignment of the project. With both the Chennai high-speed circular transportation corridor and the bicycle track project hanging fire, the slow yet steady progress in the Ennore-Manali Road Improvement Project was a source of joy to the business community and commuters in north Chennai.

Grim record

For the education capital of the south, too, this was a mixed year. The two major universities in the city — University of Madras and Anna University — ended the year without full-time vice-chancellors. They also encountered allegations of malpractices in the conduct of exams and question paper leaks, respectively.

On a more positive note, a record number of first-generation learners entered college and reaped the benefits of fee waivers and free laptops — the possibility of higher education emerging as a powerful leveller seemed brighter than ever.

For schools, this possibility was to find fruition in the Right to Education Act. However, the open reluctance of some schools to enact the 25 per cent reservation for children belonging to disadvantaged sections turned out to be dampener.

The year also saw a renewed focus on students’ safety in the aftermath of accidents that led to the death of 8-year-old S. Sruthi, who fell from her school bus, and nine-year-old M. Ranjan, who drowned in the swimming pool in his school. The measures implemented after these accidents, especially the regulations on school buses, will be vital in preventing a repeat of such accidents.

Complaints aside, as 2013 dawns, the city that Chennaiites call home, is clearly on the move. 12 months, from now, the city will indeed look quite different.

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