The latest Union budget has, in keeping with the political equations, not singled out the Chennai area for anything exceptional but it has held out two promises – the development of Ponneri as a satellite town and Kanchipuram as a heritage town. Both of these are exciting prospects that can do much good, provided they are planned and executed on different lines as compared to what has happened in the past. The question is, are we capable of that?
Let us deal with the satellite town first. The Union Budget has called for the development of ‘smart cities’ and has identified Ponneri as one of the areas capable of such development. The choice of this locality has been dictated by the fact that several Japanese companies have set up base there, given its proximity to Ennore Port. A visit to the town will reveal that while it admittedly holds potential, it presently lacks even the most basic infrastructure, road connectivity being the first. And so development has to begin from scratch.
In the past we have had developments of satellite towns – Tambaram was supposed to be one, Siruseri was yet another. In the case of the former, growth happened in a laissez faire fashion. Private developers acquired land and sold plots and a town came up. It has the narrowest possible roads, the worst drainage systems and what little support infrastructure there is – hospitals, schools and transport – has come up owing to sheer serendipity. And the same story has been repeated when it came to developing other localities – Thoraipakkam, Perungudi and Velachery. In the case of Siruseri, which was planned as an IT city, the offices came up far ahead of the support infrastructure. As a consequence, what was to be a self-contained area has become one to which people spend hours commuting from Chennai during the day. And at night it is practically dead, barring companies that operate night shifts, thereby giving rise to other problems.
If these are to be the models for development of Ponneri, then we have plenty of problems ahead. What is needed, on the other hand, is proper planning of the infrastructure before the land is thrown open for development. It is just not enough to hand over the space to private developers after drawing up a rudimentary layout and expect that time will take care of the rest.
In the case of Ponneri, the Government could do no better than seeking out Japanese help for this, given that that country has been working on sustainable and smart infrastructure for its cities for quite some time now. Since 2012, it has also launched what it has termed the Future City Initiative, whereby it has committed itself to building sustainable cities with superior environmental technologies, core infrastructure and resilence. Can Ponneri be the first of that kind in Inda?
Kanchipuram has other issues. Being a heritage town, it needs to be developed as one on the blueprint of what is being done in newever cities. Too often, Madurai, Thanjavur and Tiruchchirappalli being prime examples, our idea of development has been to build the most ugly and space-wasting bus terminus in the heart of the town, allow for rampant commercialisation of the core area, and destroy every vestige of built and natural heritage in the town. The only survivors are invariably the temples and they too end up losers for, thanks to the availability of funds, they embark on massive and, sadly, unscientific restoration projects.
This is not what is needed in Kanchipuram. It is best that the Government looks at European cities for help, for they have some of the best instances of heritage town development. Pedestrianisation of the core areas, building of support infrastructure in close proximity but not within the city centre, protection of historic buildings, the education of the local residents about the business potential in heritage, and the marketing of the city have been some of the steps taken there. Are we ready to go along those lines?