The Corporation of Chennai has gone through the motions of presenting yet another annual budget. The financial plan has disappointed on many counts – the cut in expenditure on necessary civic infrastructure being the most important issue. What is worse is that the Corporation has not delivered on several plans that were included in last year’s budget. That makes for a very poor performance and will definitely have an impact on the quality of life in the city.
Last year we had reviewed the budget in this publication and given it a rating of A. The most commendable features concerned the focus on non-motorised traffic. Pedestrian zones had been planned in Mylapore, T’Nagar and Chepauk. Granite footpaths were to be laid along 100 bus routes. A seven kilometre cycle lane was to connect Fort St. George to Foreshore Estate, the route going along the Marina. Cycles for these users were to be available on hire at various places en route. The scheme was to be extended along the Metro and MRTS corridors to provide last mile connectivity.
The next praiseworthy inclusion was the scheme to set up 100 new parks and the introduction of rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation in all the parks in the city. Solar energy was to be tapped for public lighting. Public fixtures for civic hygiene were to be washed regularly. The Corporation also pledged to look into the matter of parking fees and the possibility of collecting a congestion fee in places such as T’Nagar, the money so accruing to be used for civic projects.
Not one of these schemes has seen the light of the day. The only one on which some progress has been made is the laying of footpaths along a handful of arterial roads. According to the Corporation’s own admission, 165 of its planned schemes are yet to be acted upon! The civic body’s honesty in admitting this is to be commended, but that is not going to take it far.
These worries apart, what is also causing concern is the Corporation’s financial position. 2016 being an election year, it has been decided that property taxes will not be revised. This is a myopic stance, considering that very few property owners really vote in any election, civic or otherwise. The Corporation is, therefore, faced with falling revenues and is resorting to borrowings on a large scale to fulfil its promises. The loan component has increased from Rs. 546 crore the previous year to Rs. 1020 crore in 2015-16. The interest burden has jumped from Rs. 14 crore in 2014-15 to a whopping Rs. 105 crore in the coming year. Given this situation, it is but natural that the civic body is cutting down on all capital expenditure – roads, bridges, lighting, parks and stormwater drains. Now what does a city corporation exist for if it is unable to cater to these needs? And how does Chennai hope to be an international city if it does not spend on the upkeep of its infrastructure?
Apart from stagnant revenue, the Corporation’s finances are in poor shape because it has had to contend with a vastly increased area. The new zones have had to be brought to some level of parity with the older areas of the city and so have swallowed a significant portion of the money available. The slew of welfare schemes, beginning with the canteens, have not done much good to the bottom line either. Lastly, you would have expected that a civic body that confessed in the High Court that many buildings in the city are illegal (George Town alone had 90 per cent illegal structures) would have some significant incomes from fines, wouldn’t you? Well, the net fines collected under this head for the year were Rs 1000! That’s the way it goes.