Sunday, July 27, 2014

Southward, ho!

The southern suburbs of Chennai have experienced recent development like say, the southern part of America (The direction  of growth is coincidentally southward for a handful of other Indian cities that I can think of, too. Delhi(?) Bengaluru (?) I wonder what is so magical about the south). However, there exists an unbridgeable gulf between what you see and the ground reality . The sight you often come across is that of superficial progress- a boomtown   – a cluster of buildings that propped up over night. But underneath there exists poor planning , poor waste disposal systems and  inefficient and in many cases, corrupt local administrations. And it is when the first disaster strikes, that skeletons tumble out of the cupboard.

What I’ve just described especially befits the vast semi-rural landscape of Poonamallee, Kundrathur, Kovur and Thandalam that lie to the west of NH45 where banana fields and luscious green hills are bordered by IT parks and residential high-rises. This indictment of the Corporation is hoped to be an eye-opener to the authorities on the neglect the region has been subjected to. Much of the area used to be an empty scrubland that covered the Chembarambakkam and the Retteri basins.  There are three important roads that form the lifeline of the area – the Mount-Poonamallee road, the Bangalore highway and the Porur-Kundrathur road. Now, everywhere you come across  signs of change –from working women’s hostels to share autos and cabs to bus conductors who can speak broken Hindi – innovations to cater to the needs of a strong floating population. All this was non-existent 20 years back  But most of these townships have not really taken off because much of their arrangements are primitive – from basic amenities for the needy to recreational facilities for the rapidly surging upper-middle class income group. All over the area there is not a single mall, a park for children and morning-walkers worth the name  or a multiplex where our youth could spend their spare time. Now the contrast with downtown Mylapore, T. Nagar or Vadapalani or even Velachery becomes clearly evident. Nanganallur might emerge a second Mylapore or Velachery might become an extension of Adyar but the situation of Porur or Poonamallee is utterly hopeless.

A field study in the region I hope shall give one a glimpse of reality. The Poonamalle High Road runs through vast swatches of trees and scrubs  which clearly marks it out as virgin territory. Before and after the Adyar river its pastoral nature is more apparent. Then all of a sudden one comes to the wonderland of Mugalivakkam – the latest of the area’s IT boomtowns. Today it is a densely populated area by suburban standards yet rash driving is quite common. And there no traffic islands between Ramapuram and Porur Junction - a notoriously accident prone stretch of about three kilometres. 

In Sakthi Nagar, which is the next road junction after Mugalivakkam, the situation is especially chaotic. Neither is there an automated traffic signal nor are there policemen manning the crossing. Unregulated, vehicles pour in from all directions their drivers impatient to wait for people and two-wheelers to cross. As a result, fatal accidents and shards of broken glass are a familiar sight here.  But more importantly, Sakthi Nagar is the entrepot to Porur, the biggest and most populous town on the route and at times, the road might get stuck up with rows of vehicles stretching from Porur junction all the way to the DLF IT park in Ramapuram. Again not a policeman in sight between Porur junction and conduct and regulate the traffic (Oh no! I guess I’m wrong. There is a traffic policeman stationed close to the Porur police station but the significance of the picket is questionable).

The stretch of  road has the famous L&T ECC and L&T Infotech, DLF IT Park and the Sri Ramachandra Medical College, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country but apart from decrepit old theatres, the occasional restaurant or two and the old-fashioned departmental store, tea shop or bakery, there aren’t any shopping or recreational facilities worth the name . Okay, I admit that there is definitely some good news forthcoming. Domino’s, Raymond’s and half-a-dozen major retain chains have already setup their presence and a few others are in the anvil. But these are minor aberrations  - goodies to please the child. Compare and contrast with the parallel-running Arcot Road with its endless rows of shops, the Forum Vijaya Mall, Big Bazaar – definitely, though both run close to each other, Arcot Road is the more happening place among the two. The stretch beyond Porur junction is worser – after Iyyappanthangal it becomes a crowded  jumble of slow-moving traffic, human and animal pedestrians, dust and the mid-range hotel or sweet shop.   

A worser situation prevails on the Kundrathur road. Here, after Gerugambakkam (which, for practical purposes, is part of Porur), the scenery turns almost completely rural.  As if by an accident of chance, the Chennai bypass expressway suddenly appears, cuts through the grasslands and banana groves and disappears into the distance. The new visitor adamantly refuses to believe that he is just a handful of miles from one of India’s biggest cities. True, this small town scene would not seem out of place in any patti or hamlet of the Tamil countryside. In a way, the lackadaisical growth is good for it renders the place serene, beautiful and unpolluted. But does it do justice to the oldest part of Chennai city -  a region that had been inhabited three thousand years before the foundations of Madras were laid. What is the use if heritage is not known, valued or recognized! Three important Chola temples lie here, two of them older than the Brihadeeswarar, the engineering marvel at Tanjore and one of them carrying references to donations made by the Srivijaya kings of Sumatra. And further to the south lies the vast Stone Age complex of Pallavaram. Flats are already propping up here and there but systematic development might be hard to come by; probably, it might not materialize at all.

The Thirumazhisai-Sriperumbudur stretch fares better; its location on the Bangalore Highway aids its growth but somehow the expectations of entertainment and theme park moguls have not come good and the Bangalore Highway is far less preferred by youngsters when compared to the ECR. And even the Bangalore Highway is far less urbanized than the NH45 which has brought the city right upto the gates of Chengalpattu. The Bangalore Highway contains patches of isolated urban areas unlike the ECR, OMR or NH-45 where there is an almost contiguous urban sprawl for about thirty or forty miles.

Mismanagement is rife in the areas I’ve mentioned above probably a legacy of independent administrations of old days.  A children’s park set up in Porur on a restricted space during the late 1990s now serves as a parking lot for the waste collection vehicles of the local administration. At nights, beggars and destitute people sleep here. Needless to say children are not even allowed to visit the park by their parents leave alone frequenting it. Sakthi Nagar does not even have a proper sewage system though plans have been mooted from time to time over the past thirty years. And houses are continued to be built and people continue to pour in – migrants who’ve come to work in the IT industry. One thing isn’t clear to me – why do we continue to fill all empty spaces in the city when we can’t maintain existing ones well.

Perhaps, the meaning of honesty, integrity, discipline and decency have been lost. Only money is remembered and cherished.  Pity poor Chennai that has lost its soul in this money-making exercise. We killed the good, clean Chennai of yore. Alas! It won’t come back alive.

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