Advertising professional Durai Babu moved into his new villa at Palavakkam two weeks ago. He was forced out of his home when the floods hit. “The area was completely inundated. I moved out with my family to a hotel.” Today, he rues the decision to buy that home. “Buyers are clueless about the land or its hydrological history when they buy homes,” he said.
Rajiv Gandhi Salai (Old Mamallapuram Road), Perumbakkam, Manapakkam, Velachery, and Oragadam have seen fierce development in the last decade. Despite the absence of basic infrastructure or environmental due diligence, a slew of residential projects has come up, and prices reign high. One ground (2,400 sq. ft) in OMR or Perumbakkam costs Rs. 50 lakh to Rs. 2 crore, while in Manapakkam and Velachery, it is Rs. 2-3 crore. “Prices have shot up by 40-50 per cent in two years,” says A. Shankar, National Director and Head - Strategic Consulting, JLL.
Over 20,000 houses along OMR, 4,000 in Perumbakkam, 2,000 in Manapakkam, 1,000 in Velachery, and over 6,000 in Oragadam have been damaged by the floods. Areas like OMR are natural aquifers and the stretch has seen unplanned ribbon development. “Localities behind OMR are on the flood plains of the Buckingham Canal or on wetlands. Development must happen in a sustainable manner,” says city-based architect Sheila Sriprakash.
Aerial images of these five areas in the 1960s and 70s show that they were low-lying marshes, shallow wetlands and paddy fields with very small hamlets. The eastern periphery of this landscape had salt pans and coconut groves. The entire landscape had a rich top soil and remained that way until the 90s. Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing Trustee, Care Earth Trust, says: “As the city expanded, the soil was completely destroyed in certain areas, wetlands were fragmented and built upon.”
It is interesting to note that older areas with some semblance of planning — George Town or Mylapore — have fared better than many newly developed areas. Perumbakkam was once largely wetland. The Oragadam-Wallajabad stretch had only agricultural land and villages. “Development is taking place at the cost of ecology. This is why these wetlands have not been able to function during the rains this year,” says Ms. Vencatesan.
Most roads lack drainage and gradient alignment, while projects lack sewage lines. Stormwater drains do not follow the gradient and have been laid randomly. Good urban design is the only answer to the city’s development issue, says Ms. Sriprakash. In the 90s, she had submitted a proposal to Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority to restore Adyar River. “It was practically impossible to get multiple agencies involved on board.” She now plans to revive the proposal.