Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top 5 urgent issues to fix in Chennai

Anyone who lived in India’s bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata would consider Chennai (formerly Madras) as a city with comparatively better infrastructure. But then, why should Chennai be compared and measured against other cities in India, when Chennai is the biggest producer of automobiles in India and only the second biggest city exporting IT services in India?

But these facts hide more than what they reveal. Some of the biggest infrastructure issues in Chennai were not even known to local residents. They just continue to suffer and wonder what is wrong. Though there are many, I’m trying to list top 5 infrastructure debacles that not only rob efficiency of this city, but hinder its future growth potential as well.

1. Dumping Garbage in own Garden:

Chennai has one of the most beautiful, few of the last remaining natural wet lands of south India. It’s called Pallikaranai Marsh, an ecologically sensitive, scenic area visited by 100’s of migratory birds from Europe and Asia. The area, Pallikaranai, itself could have received this name from one of its visitors, Pallid Harrier, a bird from Eastern Europe! (Pallid Harrier= Pallikaranai, though this is my guess, there is information available that Englishmen had sighted Pallid Harrier south of Guindy, which is where Pallikaranai is).

The original expanse of the marshland was 1200 acres, which acted as one of the biggest catchment reservoir area for about 250 square kilometers (Which is proved by its soil type, alluvium and granite gneiss). Thanks to the government’s innovative ‘idea’ of dumping Garbage right on the wet lands, the area of the marsh was being encroached day by day by indiscriminate garbage dumping and other activities by the corporation. What is left now is just about 100 acres of the wet land! Laying the outer ring road (Thorapakkam-Pallavaram road) right across the marshland became the master lethal stroke, enabling the corporation to dump garbage on both sides of the water body.

Impacts? Almost all of the southern suburbs are flooded during every monsoon, with no reservoir to drain the rain water! In low lying areas like Velachery, Pallikaranai, Adyar, Tiruvanmiyur, Thuraipakkam and Perungudi Industrial estate, it’s a common sight every year to see residents getting trapped in their own flooded homes frequently visited by snakes and other floating animals.

To add fuel to the fire, corporation started burning the garbage to create more space for more ‘garbage’, thus making the marsh one of the most polluted area in India! In 2006, air quality analysis, done by a U.S.-based Global Community Monitor, rated this dump yard the most poisonous area in India. With the intervention of local residents and court, the burning has stopped, but the garbage dumping goes on!
The Expert committee formed by the High court has categorically stated that

“The current dumping site on Pallikaranai marsh does not meet 13 out of 17 criteria set out for selection of a dumping site as per MSW regulation. So, Dumping should not only be immediately stopped, but whatever has been dumped so far should also be removed”

But then, who cares?

Chennai generates about 3300 Tons/day of waste. With no proper planning for waste disposal in place, there is no surprise that precious-but-easy resources are over exploited and garbage mounts are being increasingly seen everywhere and the residents are slow-poisoned by the emissions of the burning.

2. The Chennai daily Massacre:

In Chennai, more than 1,000 people die in road accidents every year! This is the highest in the country. Going by this number, we’re witnessing the equivalent of Mumbai 26/11 massacre on Chennai roads, once EVERY 2 MONTHS.

Delhi has more than double the number of vehicles as in Chennai, but still number of accidents and number of casualties is the highest in Chennai. Bangalore had the highest number of accident causalities in 2005, but since then Chennai’s roads have taken over the title of the deadliest roads. (Bangalore suffers from bumper to bumper travel condition for most part of the day, thus eliminating one of the accident-causing factors ‘speed’).

For Indian metro standards, the roads are not too narrow in Chennai, but the lack of enforcement of traffic regulations is taking it’s toll on people’s life and happiness.

3. Lack of social infrastructure in Peripheral District Areas:

With beautiful coast on the eastern side, old Industrial activities on Northern side, Chennai is left with only two directions to grow. South and West. And it has. With the government declaring ‘Old Mahabalipuram Road’ (now Rajiv Gandhi Salai) as the ‘IT Corridor’ encouraging Information Technology majors setting up their shops in the area, supplemented by a 6 lane express way, south Chennai has seen a growth unprecedented in Chennai’s history.

With the Bangalore highway declared as ‘Industrial Corridor’ with automobile and electronic companies setting up their shops, West Chennai is fast catching up.

The IT Corridor employs about 130,000 employees with all of India’s top#5 IT Companies running their shops in multiple locations along with many more companies. With the crazy number of hours IT employees spend in their offices, there is no surprise why many hate to waste their precious time in commute. Most of the IT people I had spoken to, expressed their helplessness in having to spend many hours for commute to office. Fixing the traffic bottle neck, though, is important, this is not a solution.

The answer lies in creating better social infrastructure in Peripheral Business Districts. An hour lost in the evenings is a precious hour lost spending with family! The time lost in commute is directly taken from the time people used to spend with their families or friends. This ‘recharging’ time, if missed, will have negative consequences in the long term, on employee’s productivity, morale and so happiness.

There is not even one movie theatre along the IT Corridor or GST Road or Bangalore Highway!
There is not even one shopping mall in any of those 3 important corridors! Though all these three arterial roads and nearby areas are catching up, there is more to be done to ensure that employees start ‘living’ in nearby areas with lesser time spent on commuting.

4. Perennial Water problem:

With many short-sighted attempts to resolve the water crisis, there has not been even a single holistic permanent solution attempted, implemented or even proposed for Chennai. The humongous proportion of the issue could best be understood by this one example: In April 2010, few of India’s biggest software companies in Chennai had to shut their shops down for a day due to water unavailability. Imagine the loss of productivity for a day of tens of thousands of employees!

The private tanker Lorries, who normally supply water to majority of the companies and residents wanted to show their strength to protest against Government’s insistence on following regulations related to public lakes. The water supply regulated and rationed by Chennai Metro Water is infrequent and insufficient and does not even cover 35% of Chennai Metro area.

Chennai Metro’s current water requirement is about 2000 MLD (Million Liters per Day). Water supplied by Chennai Metro Water is about 700 MLD. Remaining 1300 MLD is met by tanker Lorries and other means. That’s a whopping 65% deficit! The total reservoir capacity of all major lakes, Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Puzhal and Cholavaram, is only 11 TMCFT; which is just 3 month supply to the metro area!

Corporation is building Desalination plants to purify and supply water from the sea. But even with the newly proposed desalination capacity, it’s only 10% of the demand (200 MLD). The total deficit is 55% (1100 MLD)! On the other hand the economics of desalination leaves much to be desired. Singapore has one of the most cost efficient desalination plants which costs about Rs.25 for 1000 Liters. This is about 8 times costlier than other conventional water purification methods.
Chennai Corporation has hired a consulting company to explore and identify new water resources so that the demand can be met. Let’s hope that they come up with some credible and innovative solution.

5. The Inconvenient truth of public transportation:

I used to wonder how the public transportation is still very popular in Chennai, despite being one of the toughest experiences, both physically and mentally (A one way trip on 5E will tell you why). Thousands of people are moving into Chennai on a daily basis from many parts of India. Many of those, who need to ‘survive’, are left only with the inconvenient public transportation and one can see the desperation in the crowd.
When the National Urban Transport Policy aims at 70% usage on Public transportation, the state of public transportation in Chennai is anything but inviting.
Most of the buses and trains are overcrowded all the time. When the patronage is there, why not plan and ply more buses and trains?
Take the hassle of using an auto. The charge for a meager 2 km will be Rs.50 against the stipulated Rs.16 (and Rs.100 if you look like an IT employee or a foreigner). Autos are Chennai’s most unfriendly face. I had not met even one Chennaite or tourist who felt ‘not cheated or exploited’ by Auto.
Try to hire a call taxi for a short distance (<5km). You will get assurances that they’ll arrive on time but the taxi will never turn up. Getting around Chennai is one of the biggest issues to any tourist or expat. When the public is ready to use public transportation, it’s the responsibility of the corporation to respond quickly.


  1. I completely agree with you on Chennai traffic. I just beginning to drive in Chennai after driven 16 years in US. It's complete madness here. I wanted to follow the rule of the road, but, i could not locate the traffic signal most of the time. Bike, Auto and Taxi are the most dangerous drivers. I can't understand why the bike guys take so much risk. Don't they care about their own life?

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