Chennai: There’s one word for the hotchpotch of road and pavement, dividers, traffic islands, and lights in India—street. There’s also a single description for this set-up under the sub-continent’s city governments—madness.
Two years ago, City Connect, an urban infrastructure group, lassoed a 500m track on a busy commuting stretch in south Chennai for a pilot street development project. Little did the participants realize that a single design would need a nod from at least four divisions of the Chennai Municipal Corporation, besides the electricity department and the police department that controlled the traffic lights.
Yet, Raj Cherubal, who anchored Chennai City Connect’s decongestion efforts on Lattice Bridge Road, or LB Road, seems to laugh it out as if it were an episode out of Yes Minister, the popular British sitcom in the 1980s lampooning bureaucratic quagmires—he shows no visible signs of disillusionment.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conspiracy theory to screw all the citizens,” says Cherubal, a former software executive. “Most city governments basically lack the expertise in designing and coordinating infrastructure development.”
India is likely to spend Rs1 trillion, or nearly as much as its current gross domestic product, from 2012 to 2017 to supercharge its infrastructure. But unless the structure of urban institutions such as Chennai Municipal Corporation that controls 2,800km of the city’s roads are simplified, time delays could escalate costs.
Walking the talk: Cognizant’s Narayanan (right) with Raj Cherubal, who anchored Chennai City Connect’s decongestion efforts on LB Road. Laxman/Mint
“Unlike other developed countries, we do not have the luxury of time to put urban systems in place,” says Swati Ramanathan of Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based urban policy group associated with City Connect. “And so it is key to correct larger upstream systems to impact downstream efforts. It is a tough task and anyone who says otherwise is probably smoking dope.”
Most places in Chennai can be reached through at least two different routes. And given a choice, majority of commuters would steer away from LB Road during peak hours. The combination of hectoring buses through the two narrow lanes, protruding trees, stores selling everything from bangles to electrical sockets to chickens make this street a “must avoid”.
But despite being daunting, it was apt for City Connect to choose 0.5km on LB Road for its model project when it partnered with Chennai Municipal Corporation in 2008 to design a pavement with gentle ramps that even a wheelchair-bound person could navigate. The message was simple: if it could be done on LB Road, it was possible anywhere.
As the project progressed, Cherubal gradually found LB Road to be his Pawnee—the fictional American town, part of the US television series Parks and Recreation. This new-age sitcom follows the travails of the deputy director of the parks and recreation department trying to turn an abandoned construction pit into a park while navigating her way through the politics of the local government.
What footpath? Workers of the electricity board rearrange connection boxes on LB Road. Laxman/Mint
Along the way, Cherubal found that a road is clearly not just a road. The US-educated engineer had to do rounds of the corporation’s parks division to get permission for setting up a traffic island on the road, the median division to change the road divider, the bus route roads unit since it maintains that road, and the storm-water group that oversees the drains on the street. Several calls were also made to the electricity department to rearrange connection boxes.
“There are disadvantages of working with the government,” admits Rajesh Lakhoni, the corporation commissioner of Chennai. “We have a multiplicity of agencies within our organization and government officers are just trying to come out of the ‘we are the boss’ mode.”
But after 24 months of labour, the LB Road pavement, while slightly usable, is still jagged. New encroachers have barged in on the space created for pedestrians.
Motorcycles and even bulky sport utility vehicles are parked on the slopes joining the street to the renovated six-inch-high pavements, and some of the shops along the street continue to use the footpath as a giant promotional rack.
“People are unlikely to change on their own and so laws have to be tightened,” says businessman P. Patturaja in Tamil. The shoe retailer demolished the front of his 25-year-old shop on LB Road to push it back by 7ft earlier this year. “Previously at least afraid about the wrath of God, but now even that doesn’t exist.”
But even as the Rs15 lakh experiment begs for user compliance, it has boosted other decongesting efforts. A new partnership forged with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an international not-for-profit group that promotes green and equitable transport policies, will implement a cycle track connecting schools. ITDP agreed do the design for free after observing the corporation’s willingness to chisel changes in the City Connect project.
And corporate honchos such as Lakshmi Narayanan, vice-chairman of New Jersey-based software company Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. that has its India base in Chennai, have aided with lobbying efforts leading to future traffic-easing measures around the Gemini flyover, a gridlock on the arterial Mount Road cutting through the city, and in T Nagar, the crammed shopping hub in the heart of the city teeming with silk sari and jewellery stores.
“The pace of work in the government is frustrating, but they do need our guidance,” says Narayanan. “We are trying to make the city livable by sharing our best practices.”
For Lakshmi, a domestic helper who goes by one name, the rearranged bus stop on LB Road works better. She no longer has to suffer the nauseating smell of fried snacks from a stall near the previous location. And there’s ample place to wait for the bus.
But D. Senthil, a driver with the city’s bus service, who plies his bus along LB Road, finds it just as congested as auto drivers refuse to make way at the scheduled stops.
There’s no doubt that urban bureaucracies that have for decades provided fodder for rib-ticklers are in need of a serious script.
Janaagraha’s Ramanathan uses the term “city governance” as key to improve urban infrastructure. It includes creating a body that will control and mediate not just road improvements, but also take charge of housing, garbage management and the environment.
“When you allow a mall to be set in a residential area, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system,” says Ramanathan, an architect herself. But she is hopeful of polishing the shoddy groundwork of Indian cities. “If you look at London a hundred years ago, this is exactly how it was. Tweaking urban management is key and the starting point is to say that there is no other option.”