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Reports from a recent conference and heartening remarks on slums from Ajay Maken, Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation

I recently attended an international conference on the Governance of Megacity Regions, hosted by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Mumbai. The conference was organized around the findings of CPR’s recent study titled ‘Governance of India’s Megacities: Needed transformation’ and designed to facilitate discussions on critical issues faced in metropolitan regions in India and elsewhere. The conference was attended by researchers, academics, and government officials from the US, the UK, Indonesia, Canada, Singapore, Brazil, and South Africa, who shared their experiences of metropolitan governance in their countries. Each city discussed in the conference had unique problems but I discovered that the problems of fragmentation, ambiguity and conflict in jurisdictions between the various tiers/agencies of the government exist pretty much everywhere.

Most importantly for me, it was heartening to see the Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ajay Maken spend so much time contributing to the discussion. He also took every opportunity to make the case for in situ development of slums. Arguing that slum dwellers make an important and under-recognized contribution to the economy of the city, he highlighted the problems with locating them outside the city. He also argued that to a slum dweller who has moved from the villages to the city looking for opportunities, the place of residence is of much less priority than the opportunities for decent livelihoods that are available only in the core city. In his vision, the city is an organic, symbiotic space that houses both service users and service providers from different classes side by side. Much of what Mr. Maken said resonated with the things that we at Transparent Chennai also believe.

Mr. Maken shared a number of policy strategies he felt were important for the Indian context. With specific reference to in-situ rehabilitation of slum dwellers, Mr. Maken felt that land use convertibility must be made easier by relaxing land use norms in various cities so that the needs of each unique city could be met. He said that density and FSI must be eased in order to increasing housing stock for the urban poor, especially in cities like Mumbai. Most importantly, he made a case of acknowledging the reality of city growth in India. Urban planning as it currently stands in India, does not accommodate informality, but he believed our planning instruments must be changed to include the informal organically into the city by better management of our resources.

His talks reinforced our belief that in the face of the Rajiv Awas Yojana, the climate is ripe for in situ development of slums. This is what TC has been pushing for in Chennai, especially since this city has a history of successful in-situ rehab under the World Bank funded MUDP and TNUDP projects. More to come on our efforts to make that happen here again!

Taller buildings in low-rise neighborhoods that have come up as a result of an increase in FSI.
Photo by: Nithya Raman.

Written by Priti Narayan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Will there finally be a change in attitude towards land violations for the rich?

Even though the city regularly evicts squatters, it has frequently turned a blind eye to The Monitoring Committee of the Madras High Court recently ordered the CMDA to re-issue demolition notices to 200 buildings in the city which had previously sought regularisation under the DMK regime, and more unauthorised buildings will soon be identified.However, the CMDA has given the owners of such buildings a chance to rectify their violations.Most of these buildings are those that have violated the city’s Floor Space Index which is currently set at 1.5. The list of violators seems to increase as the CMDA, slowly waking up to the burgeoning illegal constructions in thecity, has so far identified 5000 new cases in the past 3 years. Meanwhile, the return of Amma saw her keeping her promise about taking action against land grabbers in the state. Presently a number of Special Police Cells are now dedicated to specifically deal with land grabbing cases. Although the Additional General of Police claims that there is no political overtone to this new regime, the Chief Minister’s intentions are quite clear as recently DMK activists have been singled out for the same reason. With 1449 complaints of land grabbing registered by the people as of July 2011, the state has definitely set the wheels in motion.

Information gaps – CMDA and the Metro

A recent article in The Hindu points to the extent to which there is a lack of clarity in planning processes in the city. Apparently, the Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA has asked that all heritage buildings be avoided when the Metro is constructed. However, according to the article, under the Metro’s current plan, it is set to affect 16 heritage buildings including “Wesley Tamil Aalayam on Broadway, Madras Law College, Ripon Building, Victoria Public Hall, Chennai Central Railway Station, Ramaswamy Mudaliyar Choultry, Simpson building premises, P.ORR & Sons, SBI Building on Anna Salai, Addison & Co, Higginbotham’s, Bharat Insurance Building, Poompuhar, May Day Park, Kilpauk Medical College and Pachaiyappa College.” The CMDA has now requested details about the exact alignment and detailed site plans before they will give permission for construction. But shouldn’t the CMDA already have this information since they are the authority that gives permission for all constructions in the city? Why would this request for information be coming so late in the game? Meanwhile, when Transparent Chennai requested for the total areas of the Metro stations under an RtI, the Chennai Metro Rail Corporation told us that total floor areas were not final because they “may change during construction due to technical parameters.”[1] Would these kinds of last minute changes also cause impacts on heritage buildings?

[1] Source: Response to RtI filed with the Chennai Metro Rail by Transparent Chennai

Namba Chennai: A city of valued Heritage

On the eve of World Heritage Day, let’s remember and commemorate the architectural and cultural spaces in Chennai. The city of Chennai is actually a cluster of several old settlements, with each one having distinct histories and important landmarks.

In places like Fort St. George and in Egmore, the British built several administrative and institutional buildings in the Indo-Saracenic style using a variety of materials like exposed red bricks, pillars made of rough granite, and inlays of marble and ivory. The city also has beautiful traditional south Indian temple architecture with large gopurams, intricately carved shikhars, and temple tanks which serve as a recharged pool of surface water for the entire community. These temples can be seen in the older settlements like Mylapore, surrounded by the homes of Brahmins during earlier eras. Unlike North India the mosques in Chennai are smaller and are very different. For example, the Thousand Lights mosque is a cream coloured, multi-domed mosque unlike the traditional single domes in the north. The Dutch settlement in Pulicat, and Portuguese constructions like the Santhome Basilica display completely different elements of Western architecture. From traditional to Indo-saracenic, Colonial, Classical, Gothic, Romanesque and other architechtural styles, Chennai has a diverse range to offer.

A walk down the memory lane: revisiting the past

Cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, and Lucknow have begun heritage walks for residents and tourists.  Can Chennai also similarly replicate and restore its own pieces of history and showcase them to the world?  After the restoration of Senate House by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Rippon building and the Victoria Public Hall are now being restored. But is this enough? One problem is that Chennai’s heritage is spread all over the city, making it less amenable to a walking tour than the clusters of buildings in the other cities.

But the main problem is that the CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) is still in the long process of identifying heritage buildings to compile a list of the city’s protected structures while the conservationists are fighting legal battles to protect them from being demolished, sometimes by the government itself. A mass protest by the students and activists saved the Queen Mary’s college, where the then chief minister J.Jayalalitha wanted to build the new Secretariat. Today, the Bharat Insurance building on Mount Road owned by LIC (Life Insurance Corporation) and Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street are saved only because of heritage enthusiasts who have been waging a battle in court.

Though the government made an announcement in October 2010 about finalising a heritage bill, it is feared that it may not see the light. Meanwhile, the CMDA can take a decision to demolish old buildings which are not covered by the Archaeological Monument Act.

Following are some of the heritage buildings in the city:

Areas Buildings
Old Madras Chennai Central building, Moore Market, Victoria Public Hall, Rippon building, Vetinary Hospital.
Egmore Egmore Railway Station, Museum theater complex
Mount Road Thousand Lights mosque, Cuddons complex, Victoria Technical Institute, Higgin Bothams,  Botanical Garden,  Thousand Light Mosque, Anna Salai Mosque, Bharat Insurance Building
Mylapore Kapaleeshwar Temple,
Beach Front and surrounding Santhome Basilica, Police Headquarters, Presidency and Queen Marys college, Madras University complex, Napier’s bridge, War Memorial, Fort St. George, PWD Complex, Parthasarthy Temple,
Parrys GPO building, SBI building, High Court,  Parrys building, Gokhale Hall
Adayar and Surrounding Theosophical society,   Anna University,

We need to protect, promote and create awareness amongst us about our glorious heritage which showcases the city’s inherent charms. Please help us create a list of heritage buildings which can be seen as the public face of this city.

Roshan Toshniwal