Chennai: When I told people that I’ve got a job in Chennai, they were like, ‘Oh! don’t go to Chennai, the weather is horrible’. But if any of my friends were to ask my opinion about coming here for a job, I would definitely ask him to take it up,” says Nitish Tandon, a 24-year-old management trainee working for a software firm in the city.
“Language is a problem, north Indian food is not good at all and the rentals are very high, but it is one of the safest cities in India and there are a lot of opportunities for one to develop his/her career,” says Tandon, who came to Chennai six months ago.
Over the years, Chennai has evolved into a city that is open to new ideas, even as it remains in a tight embrace with its age-old culture and lifestyle. The fourth largest metropolitan city in the country is located in the north-eastern part of Tamil Nadu.
Cultural heritage: Mylapore temple. K Ganesh / Mint
Its importance on modern India’s landscape can be traced back to the time when the British set up the headquarters of East India Company at Fort St George (which is used as the state’s legislative assembly now) in Chennai way back in 1639. With inhabitants settling down around the landmark architecture, the modern city of Chennai came into existence with the coming together of a cluster of villages.
“Tradition and modernity converge amicably to create the mosaic that is Chennai,” R. Seshasayee, managing director of Ashok Leyland Ltd, said in an email response. “A rich cultural heritage, some legendary institutions of technical and higher learning, a healthy work culture, relatively better public and social infrastructure, investor-friendly government policies—Chennai has so many positives. No wonder it has attracted global industry majors and premier Indian IT companies alike.”
The city, often associated with idli, dosa, vada and filter kaappi (coffee), has also emerged as one of the important destinations for investments and outsourcing, so much so that it is even being touted as the Detroit of South Asia and has been ranked first in terms of the top 50 outsourcing hubs in the country by investment advisory firm Tholons and Global Service Magazine.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a private research institution, investments in Tamil Nadu stood at around Rs90,650 crore in May 1996. This touched Rs3.48 trillion by March 2008—in excess of a threefold increase in about 12 years. Separate investment details for Chennai, however, are not available.
Chennai has managed to attract, invite and convince big names to set up shop in or near the city, with most of them figuring in the automobile and electronic hardware sectors. Some of the multinational corporations that have decided to make Chennai their Indian base include Nokia Oyj, Dell Inc., Ford Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., with the most recent investment commitments made by joint venture agreements between Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. and, Nissan and Ashok Leyland.
When it comes to the information technology (IT) sector, though Bangalore leads the way, Chennai is not too far behind—the government expects software exports from the state will exceed Rs28,000 crore for 2007-08, with Chennai commanding most of the share.
Top IT firms in India such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), Wipro Technologies Ltd and Cognizant Technology Solutions (CTS) have a significant presence in Chennai, with some of them even expanding their facilities.
One of the main factors that seems to have acted in favour of the city, as well as the state, in terms of companies setting up their facilities here, is the number of graduates it churns out every year, especially engineering graduates.
“Interestingly, in the 1980s, a lot of private colleges were set up and now, there is a supply of IT-qualified people. Chennai is relatively peaceful—no basic violence, law and order situation is relatively better. Overall, people are nice. People are better, living conditions are better, things that we take for granted are there in Chennai, when compared to other cities,” says Raj Cherubal, coordinator, Chennai City Connect, a non-governmental organization backed by industry body Confederation of Indian Industry.
The entry of the IT giants brought in big changes in Chennai, with professionals from across the country coming to work in the city, announcements of building around 14 malls (currently it has just two), many luxury and residential apartments, coffee pubs and discotheques—most of this came late to the city compared with most other metros in the country.
Growing popularity: Chennai’s Marina beach. The city has emerged as an important destination for investments and outsourcing. K Ganesh / Mint
Over the years, the city’s health care industry has grown significantly, so much so that Chennai has almost become synonymous with medical tourism. People from across the world fly to Chennai; initially, low-cost health care facilities were the main attraction but now, it is widely believed that more than the low-cost tag, it is the “world class” treatment that attracts foreigners to India.
Chennai is also where organized retail took off, even though the city has been labelled cost-conscious or conservative.
On the rock-bed of centuries-old culture and traditional practices, many new ideas, people, lifestyle aspects and industries have come to the city and become part of it. Still considered to be conservative (often looked at in negative light) by many, perhaps this characteristic is what makes the city different from the other major cities in the country.