The Corporation of Chennai has been making several announcements on major projects. It has promised world-class roads, commissioned feasibility studies for a slew of flyovers, and initiated consolidation of garbage storage in various localities. There is also much noise being made on a unified transport authority for the city. In the midst of all these initiatives, one locality, a locality that is completely different from any other in the city, is sure to be left behind, except perhaps when it comes to garbage disposal. I allude to George Town, the old city.
George Town presents challenges that are not necessarily present in other areas. This entire quarter came up at a time when electricity, motorised transport, footpaths and modern drains were unheard of. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and were meant for pedestrians and a few horse carriages. Today, the same roads bear the load of a vast number, and bewilderingly different range, of vehicles, together with a burgeoning pedestrian population.
If those be the problems with the streets, the homes and offices have challenges as well. They were all meant to be town houses, with no space between them. These were usually two-storeyed, with the business establishment and warehouse on the ground floor, and residence on the upper floor. Ventilation was largely through skylights and open courtyards and verandahs. This sensitive fabric has begun to come apart when permission to build according to the norms of the rest of the city is being extended to structures in George Town as well. Several buildings have risen to many floors, putting the entire neighbourhood under severe stress in terms of infrastructure and quality of life. The Government itself has led the way with the police quarters on Broadway becoming multi-storeyed. There are problems of illegal structures as well. With ownership rights of several old buildings being hazy at best, there have seen unplanned constructions by tenants, adding to the chaos. What George Town needs is strict governance of construction permits and emphasis on safety norms.
Traffic in George Town follows a complicated set of one-ways. These are observed more in the breach, which only adds to the confusion. There are no checks on the number of vehicles plying inside the area or as to where they are parked. The Loane Park, for instance, became a truck parking facility through the simple act of usurpation. It took the Government ages to retrieve the Park and restore it. What is needed is a recognition that George Town has a severe shortage of space and, so, parking in the area needs to be at a punitive premium. Travelling by foot needs to be encouraged and mass-parking facilities need to be organised on the outskirts of George Town. It is not as though space is not available for this. Land can be taken from the Seven Wells Pumping Station, the Salt Cotaurs Goods Shed and from the Esplanade Bus Terminus for this purpose.
There is much talk about decongesting George Town by encouraging the wholesale businesses to move out. While the debate is on as to whether this will destroy George Town’s traditional character, what is overlooked is that such shifts are rarely accomplished in full. Thus, vegetable vendors are still around in the Kotwal Chavadi area, flower sellers remain on Badrian Street, the chemicals people in Mannadi and the hardware merchants on Anderson Street. This, years after alternative locations have been proposed. And, very often, the shifting of one trade sees the vacated place being occupied by others with alacrity, thereby negating the entire effort.
What is urgently needed is a separate master plan for George Town. This needs to be a plan that recognises George Town’s special character – its multi-ethnic population, its traditional ways of business, its narrow spaces, and the necessity to preserve its heritage, even while improving the lot of its people. Ahmedabad has already done this in its Walled City and is reaping the benefit of increased tourism as well. Can Chennai not do the same?