When Cyclone Mandous and its wake dumped considerable rain in Chennai suburbs as well as the city, residents in gated communities and housing units experienced yet another year of misery. It was in stark contrast to the marketed images of gated communities where people happily drive in and out of luxury enclaves in flashy cars and spend time in butterfly gardens as children play in the warm sunshine. Residents had to put up with choked patchy inundated roads, the stench of stagnant floodwater and rotting refuse, and a proliferation of invasive giant African snails that comes after the rains.
Chennai may have declared that it is soon to become a 5,000-plus square kilometre metropolitan area, but it is evident that the town panchayats, municipalities and even the Avadi and Tambaram Corporations lack the capacity or skills to pursue orderly urbanisation. The present rot may have more to do with more than a decade of neglect. The local bodies’ administrative procedures, personnel and resources have been neglected since the suburban housing boom of 2005.
Information obtained over time under the Right to Information (RTI) Act shows that many of the town panchayats have participated in the conversion of large tracts of land into housing layouts without the necessary capacity or resources, and yet have gained approval from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). The CMDA also went along with this vegetative state, failing to hold them to its standards on orderly urban development. The State government too was indifferent to the disorderly spread of urbanisation.
What RTI revealed about Chennai suburbs
Mangadu Municipality, which was a town panchayat until recently, is an example of this indifference. As with previous floods, when Cyclone Mandous inundated several areas of the municipality, there was no channel for the water to flow. All outlets from the area towards Porur Lake have been encroached. Each year, it is left up to the sun to dry these areas out over time.
One CMDA-approved layout, Jeeva Nagar, in the Badrimedu ward of Mangadu was created in 2004. The layout approval is on the CMDA website here. Post-Mandous, as the pictures accompanying this article show, Jeeva Nagar was unapproachable because large parts of it were underwater. The layout has no drainage system despite 18 years of existence though residents have been paying taxes to Mangadu Town Panchayat, now Municipality. In 2007, the first residents who had built houses there were living in a virtual lake.
To RTI petitions filed by this writer, the CMDA said the layout had been approved on the sole condition that nine public service plots be set aside for a post office and a fire station for a year by the developer (BLB Estates), which when released by the government can be sold for residential purposes. However, all the plots were sold for private use over time.
Strangely, the CMDA approved the layout without looking into its physical condition, the state of the approach roads, the topography of the layout and whether it can handle rainfall, the condition of the drainage systems if any, and so on.
That the approval process was blind became evident when, in response to an RTI application to the Mangadu Town Panchayat in 2007, the Executive Officer responded that “Jeeva Nagar is predominantly a low laying (sic) area, and prone to rain water stagnation. In order to overcome flood of this monsoon, this Town Panchayat has made kutch drains (existing ones), which facilitates free flow of water.” No drains exist, though.
The local body refused to raise the level of interior roads to make the layout livable, although it knew all along that it was a low-lying area, as the RTI response shows. It did not raise this with the CMDA during the approval process either.
In a subsequent RTI response in December 2008, the Mangadu Town Panchayat said it could not take up road improvement work or install street lights because Metrowater was carrying out planned underground sewerage work. Yet, no sewerage system was ever built in Jeeva Nagar, and residents pooled in an average of Rs 10,000 each to lay the interior roads.
Even that has not made the ‘approved layout’ livable. The floods of 2015, 2021 and 2022 have left the layout worse off. On Saturday, the local councillor from the DMK arranged for the water to be drained out to “some other area”, although earlier attempts to do this were stopped as other localities objected.
The story is the same in all Chennai suburb ‘villages’ where the CMDA has been signing off on approvals for gated communities and residential layouts. Now the Chennai Metro rail line is preparing to snake through the centre of this vast area along the Mount-Poonamallee road as a shiny, transformative development. The CMDA issued a notification on November 11 to widen several roads in Mangadu and Kundrathur areas.
None of the interior areas has benefited from the “massive concrete drain” solution rolled out within core Chennai by the Greater Chennai Corporation and the Highways Department. There is apparently no initiative to create waterbodies in these suburbs, using empty poromboke lands to which flood waters could flow. The final report of the Tiruppugazh committee could offer some clues to how floods can be handled in the suburbs.
Residents of Chennai suburbs opposed to merger of local bodies
Due to the poor performance of suburban local bodies, residents have opposed recent moves by the Tamil Nadu government to merge smaller local bodies with others. In Iyyappanthangal, one of the localities on the Metro line to Poonamallee, 15 residents’ associations and scores of citizens submitted petitions against the merger of the local village panchayat with the Mangadu Municipality. It may be a village, but Iyyappanthangal hosts many gated communities and the residents argued that they are closer to the Greater Chennai Corporation limits than the Municipality, whose record is evident from its handling of Jeeva Nagar (which is 3 km from Iyyappanthangal).
The glossy weekend advertisements in newspapers and the barrage of social media advertising by real estate companies hide the painful reality that Chennai’s suburbs are playing host to overpriced real estate in unlivable conditions.