Chennai, going by the second master plan, has only about 0.46 square metres green space per city dwellers

About ten days ago, while presenting the Chennai Corporation budget, the Mayor proudly announced that 100 new parks would be created in the city. This should have been a piece of news to celebrate, and could have silenced the critics who often complain that Chennai is not among the greenest of cities. But the announcement has not done either of these things. Instead, it has brought up some disquieting facts.

First is the sobering realisation that even with a hundred parks, Chennai would still fare poorly in terms of per capita green space.

Second is the shocking fact that there is no account of the money and land that has been collected over the last four decades to create open spaces. Even the fragmented information that is available points out that the current proposal is only a token return of what the Corporation owes to its residents and not a great endowment as it is being made out to be.

Third, Chennai Corporation in general and this budget in particular is not led by a vision when it comes to creating green infrastructure.

The World Health Organization recommends that 9 metre square green open space per dweller should be the minimal norm for a city. If you leave aside well-planned cities abroad, which have more than 80 meter square per capita green space on an average, and compare only Indian cities, Chennai is among the poorest. Gandhinagar has 162 metre square per dweller green space, Chandigarh has 54 metre square, Delhi has 21 metre square and Bangalore has 17 metre square. Chennai on the other hand, going by the second master plan, has only about 0.46 square metres per city dweller. In other words, the amount of open space within the city has to be increased by at least twenty times to meet the bare minimum norm.

If other accessible standards such as having a local park within 500 metre of every neighbourhood and a district park within two kilometres are factored in, Chennai needs a phenomenal scaling up of green spaces.

Incremental and insignificant additions will not suffice. We need radical rethinking. Is it impossible to find space and money for this? Certainly not.

Anticipating the need for land and funds, the development rules, using the Open Space Reservation (OSR) regulation, mandate that when plots measuring more than 10,000 square metres are developed, 10 per cent of the area must be reserved as open space and gifted to the local bodies.

In plots measuring between 3,000 and 10,000 square metres, if gifting of 10 per cent of the area as open space is not possible, cash equivalent can be paid. The money collected is meant to develop open spaces in the city.

Since 1976, the Chennai Corporation has been collecting OSR charges and taking possession of land under the open space reservation rules. But it has not revealed what the total extent of land and amount collected is so far. It has not disclosed how much of this money has been utilised for open space development, either. Only partial information of land acquired since 2002 is available and that too on the CMDA website. This partial list shows that about 18.5 lakh square feet has been so far acquired for Chennai Corporation in the last ten years.

When the Mayor proposed new parks was he referring to these OSR lands or are they entirely new additions? What happened to the remaining acquired land? We hit a total black hole when it comes to the amount of money collected under this category.

First, the Corporation should disclose this information in full and dedicate this fund only for open space development. Second, it should scale up its efforts. When it does, it should go beyond creating manicured lawns and fancy fountains, and design a variety of open spaces. What is required is a comprehensive plan that looks at the equitable distribution of urban open spaces across the city.

A. Srivathsan is a Deputy Editor with The Hindu. He writes on urban development, architecture and conservation

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A. SrivathsanJune 28, 2012