Thyagaraya Nagar, popularly known by its abbreviated form of T Nagar is a long pending ‘smart city’ project, originally conceived by the Centre as a part of its Smart City Mission (SCM). In the imagination of city dwellers, the picture of a smart city contains a lengthy wish-list of infrastructure and services that describes his or her level of aspiration. Providing all these would involve comprehensive development of institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. These are long-term goals and doing this for the entire Chennai Metropolis is a herculean task. Cities can work towards developing such comprehensive infrastructure incrementally, adding on layers of ‘smartness’. Chennai is starting with T Nagar.
This part of the city was constructed between 1923 and 1925 by the Madras Presidency government of the Raja of Panagal as a part of town planning activities initiated according to the Madras Town Planning Act of 1920. The town was named after Justice Party leader Sir P. Theagaraya Chetty.
T Nagar was conceived as a primary residential locality and it remained so till some decades ago. I vividly remember my Loyola College days in early 1960’s when we used to walk past the Lake Area, Nungambakkam where the Tennis Stadium now stands towards Panagal Park and the sleepy residential area of T Nagar with its nondescript shopping centre. Nalli Chinnasami Chetty was the only shop of any size and it was just 2 storeys high.
T Nagar now is the busiest shopping district of Chennai and is considered to be the richest commercial/shopping centre in India by revenue which is stated to be double that of New Delhi’s Connaught Place and Mumbai’s Linking Road. The neighbourhood accounts for about 70/80 percent of the gold sold in Chennai, the most important gold market in South India. Usman Road is the costliest commercial stretch in Chennai. The area around Panagal Park is known for its high-end textile shops, chiefly dealing with silk sarees, and jewellery stores. Leading wardrobes stores Nalli Chinnasamy Chetti and Naidu Hall are based here. Other important stores such as Pothys, The Chennai Silks, RmKV and Kumaran silks also have their main showrooms in this locality. Retail giant Saravana Stores has a wardrobe and utensils showroom. Ranganathan Street is one of the most crowded roads for pedestrian traffic during day time. The road is full of big name establishments side-by-side smaller and petty shops that sell all sorts of household goods and garments.
Almost all the high-rise commercial buildings in T Nagar have been built through gross violation of building rules and regulations. These structures were originally of the same size or height as that of Nalli Chinnasamy Chetti or smaller. Now most of them are six to eight storeys high. While the sanctioned Floor Space Index (FSI) is 1 to 1.5 many buildings have 6 to 9 FSI. The road width requirement is 60 ft. while on the ground it is barely 30 ft. All basements meant for car parking are being used as shops/showrooms. There is hardly any side/front setback to facilitate movement of people, goods and fire engines. What is worse, most of these buildings have been blatantly violating fire safety norms and regulations.
In short it is a cauldron of high density commercial centre that sees footfalls of around 200,000 on week-days going up to 500,000 on week-ends waiting to explode. Yet, successive governments have failed to take any action. Instead these governments have brought Ordinances and laws to protect these violations which cause serious inconvenience and grave risks to the people living in the locality as well as the visiting public. The reasons are obvious!
It is in this congested, chaotic and polluted locality one of the India’s first ‘Smart Cities’ is coming up. Smart City Mission launched by Government of India in June 2015 has four strategic components-city improvement (retrofitting), city renewal (redevelopment) and city extension (greenfield development) plus a Pan-city initiative in which Smart Solutions are applied covering larger parts of the city.
After a hiatus of two years, the Chennai Smart City Project (SCP) is gaining momentum. The Chennai Smart City Ltd (CSCL) formed under the Companies Act, 2013 will be the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to implement this Rs. 200 crore project. It is promoted jointly by the state government and the Greater Chennai Corporation with an equal equity share holding and will be an independent body promoting the concept of smart city. Key officials including the Chief Executive Officer are on board and the project is on roll.
Though the activities of SPV are not yet clear it looks as if city improvement (retrofitting) is the component it will be dealing with. As per SCM retrofitting is to introduce planning in an existing built-up area to make it more efficient and liveable through advanced technology. Since existing structures are largely to remain intact in this model, it is expected that more intensive infrastructure service levels and a large number of smart applications will be packed into the retrofitted smart-city.
The T Nagar SCP is likely to deal with issues like strengthening of the electrical network, water supply, solid waste management, IT connectivity and digitisation, sanitation, pedestrian-friendly pathways and ramp, non-motorised transport (NMT), intelligent traffic management systems and retrofit of green open spaces. NMT appears to be a priority and for the purpose 23 interior roads are being redesigned to widen footpaths and place bollards to prevent encroachment.
Simultaneously, SCP may also look at pan-city development that envisages application of select Smart Solutions to the existing city-wide infrastructure and services. Traffic and solid waste management could be the candidates for this.
There is nothing new about the smart-city concept which is basically application of automation technology to urban infrastructure and services. It has now become a fix thanks to the rise of ubiquitous digitalisation and is crystallising into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot–a vision prompted by giant technology companies that has found powerful disciples in India.
Such a technology-fix does not address the basic issues, problems and maladies which are aplenty in T Nagar as we have seen. These are better known to the local residents, who are living there for decades. They must be taken on board and made active participants which does not seem to be happening. If this is not remedied T Nagar SCP may not hold for long.
—The writer is a former senior bureaucrat