Chennai’s city limits are set to expand by over 7,000 sq km.

On January 22, the Tamil Nadu government issued a notification bringing 1,709 villages of the neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Vellore under the Chennai Metropolitan Development Area. This will take the city’s area from 1,189 sq km to over 8,878 sq km.

The urban development department’s notification raised several concerns among urban planners and civic groups in the city about the feasibility of the plan, its actual purpose and the environmental implications of such an expansion on the areas that will be subsumed into Chennai’s city limits.

“It defies all norms and principles of planning,” said KP Subramanian, an urban development expert, who filed a petition in the Madras High Court in February, seeking to quash the notification. “When the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority is unable to perform its statutory duties even within the existing area, it is highly impossible for it to perform its duties for the proposed 8,878 square kilometres,” he said.

The government was expected to file a counter to the petition in the Madras High Court on Friday. Subramanian said on Friday he did not have any information about the government’s counter petition.

This reporter attempted to contact the member secretary of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority to enquire about the purpose of the expansion and the logistical difficulties associated with it, but the calls went unanswered. An email sent to the official with similar questions has also not received a response so far.

Regional planning or city planning?

At 74, Subramanian is now retired, but he has worked with the Chennai district town planning department for more than 25 years after which he joined Anna University as professor of urban engineering.

He said that when he first saw the notification to expand the city limits, he was bewildered by it. “The government order and the notification on the proposed expansion is silent on the objective of such an expansion,” he said in his petition. Moreover, the notification allows only people from the added areas to raise objections to the plan, not those within the existing city limits, he said.

Subramanian said that the original intention was only to notify an area for regional planning. But instead, the government expanded the jurisdiction of the Chennai city planning body. He explained that regional planning entails the constitution of a separate body – the metropolitan regional development authority. “This body prepares a strategic plan for the entire region, and facilitates coordination between all the planning bodies and local authorities within the region,” he said.

Manali, a town on the outskirts of Chennai. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

Regional planning permits a large area to be developed strategically, and as per each area’s requirements. But the current expansion plan seems to be focused on developing Chennai at the cost of its surrounding areas.

“Centralisation leads to inefficiency,” said Subramanian. “Now that the entire area is a metropolitan area, the focus would be only urban development. It will further contribute to the burgeoning of the city, will do a great damage for the ecology and environment. This is not the concept of planning at all.”

Subramanian said that having a regional planning body like the Bengaluru Metropolitan Development Authority was necessary to prepare Chennai to absorb an increasing number of migrants, and to generate employment and infrastructure facilities in neighbouring towns like Kancheepuram, Gummidipoondi and Arakkonam.

Environmental damage

Ever since the expansion plan was announced, environmental non-profit Poovalagin Nanbargal has been campaigning for the state to abandon the proposal. In a detailed press note listing the problems such a move entailed – such as increased air and water pollution, traffic and waste management issues – the non-governmental organisation also noted that a situation like the 2015 floods is likely to recur. “The floods was a result of the occupation of many lakes, drainage canals and marshes in the city,” said the activists. “Now the water bodies in the neighbouring districts will also be destroyed by expansion.”

North Chennai was badly affected by the floods of 2015. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

Satyarupa Shekhar, director of the non-profit Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, said that the expansion of city boundaries would allow the state to easily acquire and convert valuable common and agricultural lands for urban and industrial purposes.

This has environmental implications for these areas. For instance, in 2011, when the Chennai Corporation expanded its boundaries by including nine municipalities, eight town panchayats, 25 village panchayats, it appropriated large parts of the Kodungaiyur lake and the Pallikaranai marshlands and created waste dump yards there to which Chennai’s waste was trucked.

She also drew attention to the fact that the Chennai MetroWater Board already draws water from agricultural lands in the peri-urban metropolitan areas and supplies the city with it. “Chennai’s supposed transformation into a smart city will be funded by the conversions of agricultural lands and commons, the gains of which will be appropriated by the state and real estate, rather than village governments and landowners,” said Shekhar. “Instead of cannibalising off other villages and towns, Chennai should aim to develop with what resources it has and to fund its own growth.”

Subramanian pointed out that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority was already spread thin with violations of building or layout regulations, as well as unauthorised developments, increasing at an alarming rate within the city. Since the city’s planning authority did not have the manpower to enforce regulations, the proposed expansion would only aggravate the situation, he warned.

Said Shekhar: “Unless there is a serious commitment to change this approach to urban growth, we will continue to see cities decay and also see fledgling towns and villages sucked into the same vortex.”