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The biggest challenge facing Chennai would be to reimagine the city itself, in a way that induces or promotes certain lifestyle changes. (Photo: Reuters)
The biggest challenge facing Chennai would be to reimagine the city itself, in a way that induces or promotes certain lifestyle changes. (Photo: Reuters)

Chennai searches for life beyond lockdown

  • India’s fourth-largest metropolis gropes for the way ahead as covid cases surge. When will its economy recover?
  • How the next few months unfold may matter not only due to the city’s links with India’s economy, but also because it may offer lessons on the task of opening up a city economy amid a pandemic

CHENNAI : In 2008, when T. Muthalvan first arrived in Chennai, he was just 22 years old. Armed with an engineering degree and a shoulder bag carrying his “limited stuff", he was looking for a job. He discovered a new life. “Everything that I have today, including family and friends, I owe it to Chennai. They are right when they say vandhaarai vaazha vaikkum Chennai (Chennai allows people who come in search of it to prosper)."

But that dream ended last week—or, at least, has been paused for a while. As the city entered another round of lockdown (expected to last till 30 June), Muthalvan, now 34 and an operations manager at a medical billing firm, packed everything up and decided to drive back to his native town Karaikkal—some 300km away—in a car that “Chennai life gave him". This wasn’t one of those regular trips that he makes to catch up with his family. This time, he does not know if he will ever come back.

Things weren’t looking up for India’s fourth-largest city even before the pandemic. Tamil Nadu has been under the shadow of small-and-medium industry shutdowns since 2018. Chennai’s two big bets in the early 2000s —automotive clusters and information technology (IT)—had begun to start unravelling by the middle of this decade. The auto hubs are all shut at the moment. And even the IT sector, one of the least affected by the city-wide shutdowns, has seen wage cuts and job losses.

“At least 60 persons have approached us since the lockdown saying they have been forced to leave their job. These are all small and medium companies," said Alagunambi Welkin, general secretary, Union of IT and ITES Employees (UNITE).

Naturally, with little to do in a city that has been under lockdown in one form or another for three months now, Chennai witnessed a second round of hurried exits recently, similar to the migrant/guest worker exodus that preceded it. The reasons were many: loss of a job, salary cuts, non-availability of food, and the virus itself.

Muthalvan said many of his friends have left Chennai only because they are not sure if they could find a hospital bed in case they contract the virus. “I could see scores of people near the toll gates, with their families on two-wheelers, pleading with the cops to let them leave Chennai."

It set off an immediate public health worry, about whether those leaving the city might carry the virus along with them into the hinterland. But there was also an unspoken, underlying economic worry: How does a city recover from this?

While much of the city’s attention remains squarely focussed on the public health challenge, there are also brief moments when hopes about the future are expressed and plans are made. Many of Chennai’s streets could get a makeover to make them pandemic-proof. The main wholesale markets (which became an early virus cluster) could get decentralized, changing the way the city buys many things. New types of economic activity could emerge as others get shut.

“We are not sure how many sectors would actually survive", said J. Jeyaranjan, an economist and director of the Institute of Development Alternatives. “Sectors like merchandise and commerce might have it a bit easier. Industrial production will be the hardest hit. But until normalcy is restored, we cannot speculate about any kind of revival."

How the next few months unfold in Chennai may matter not only because of the city’s intricate links with the rest of India’s economy, but also because it may offer lessons to all of urban India on the difficult task of opening up a city economy amid a pandemic.

A city in slumber

At Guindy, Muthalvan’s own office in a sprawling building now wears a lonely, deserted look—just like many other buildings in the area. Guindy houses the city’s oldest industrial estate—started in 1958 and spread over 400 acres, housing hundreds of small-scale units. “It was so lonely that it appeared haunted" Muthalvan said.

Like Guindy, Ambattur Industrial Estate started in 1963 and spread over 1,100 acres also looks almost haunted. In the brief period that saw an unlocking of the city in early June, companies opened at Ambattur and swiftly announced a 30% pay cut. Then, the city pulled away from the national consensus of “unlock, unlock, unlock" to announce yet another lockdown from 19-30 June.

That Chennai accounts for more than half of Tamil Nadu’s total covid positive cases could have had something to do with it. The three neighbouring districts—Kanchipuram, Tiruvallur and Sriperumbudur —also got added to the list due to their proximity. Chennai’s long covid shadow falling on Sriperumbudur is perhaps the last thing that the automotive and electronics cluster, touted as India’s Detroit, needed.

The southern metropolis has already set a series of unfortunate records: the longest lockdown of any major Indian city; home to the first legislator to succumb to covid.

“I have never seen Chennai in such panic in all these years. People have not been able to come out of their homes for months", said S.G. Suryah, spokesperson for BJP Tamil Nadu.

For the eclectic mix of Chennai’s population—that both hangs out at malls and makes religious trips to temples—the lockdown has had serious impact. From the quintessential rose milk at one of the quaint shops in Mylapore to a high-end pub just streets away, Chennai had something for everyone. “It’s hard to feel lonely in a place like that" Muthalvan said, with a tinge of nostalgia. “It is as if Chennai is in deep slumber now".

Due to all the constraints in the physical world—which enters the third month this week—there has already been a slow transition to the digital realm. From music to theatre performances, and meetings to protests, the city’s cultural life is now almost entirely online.

Renowned Carnatic musician and writer T.M. Krishna, who has already started doing online concerts for various reasons, said he fails to comprehend the rationale behind these endless lockdowns. “The economic impact has been enormous and I am not certain the government is even thinking of the struggles of the poor, who have no savings and are now unemployed. The state and the central government have done very little to help those on the margins. The long-term impact of our actions is unknown".

Fear economy

The hand-wringing about long-term implications is something that resonates across many sectors. Prominent city-based hotelier M.Mahadevan, who goes by the moniker “Hot Breads Mahadevan", said business prospects look bleak. “Many people are out of jobs. I have managed to pay just the basic salary. But it’s a balance between life and livelihood, and we have no choice except to do what the government says" he said.

With his business spread across 17 countries, Mahadevan talks of a “mental lockdown" which will continue to affect all manner of service industries. “Countries like Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore and several others have opened up. But not even 25% of the restaurants are full." This, he added, reflects a “fear economy". The long-term solution would be to “run a lean and mean operation".

The immediate concern for the city, however, is to figure out the meaning and necessity of lockdowns, said member of Parliament and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party’s women’s wing secretary Kanimozhi. That the new shutdown was announced without “much thought" and barely three days after the government denied any knowledge of it raises many questions, she said.

“Lockdown can be an instrument to delay the spread of the virus and to prepare for the spread. But it did not achieve its purpose. We failed miserably. Today, after the community spread in Chennai, there are no hospitals beds available," she added. Kanimozhi also pointed at another major impending crisis—the government’s plan to handle the spread of the pandemic in smaller towns and rural areas, given the mass exodus from Chennai. Several districts have reported a higher number of cases in the last few days.

Meanwhile, in the capital city, the economic costs are slowly starting to get calculated. “In the past one month—after the partial unlock was announced on 20 May —we started our work with 20% manpower and gradually increased it to 50%, which is when the new lockdown was announced", said K.E. Raghunathan, former national president of All India Manufacturers’ Organisation. “In the five days since the announcement of (this new) lockdown, 30% of existing orders were cancelled and diverted to other states."

The quantum of loss in the last seven days “due to the uncertainty of execution of commitment" is 17,000 crores in the state. “If the lockdown continues, industries will leave Chennai," he said.

An estimated 250,000 migrant labourers have already left Tamil Nadu, impacting the industry, especially in pockets like Sriperumbudur, Tiruppur and Karur. Business costs have already shot up, Raghunathan said, and industries would lose their credibility if the government works on unlocking in a “trial and error method". Local industrialists are already pushing for exemptions from property tax, rent payments, etc. citing announcements in other states, in early indications that Indian states may soon be in a competitive race to the bottom.

The way ahead

The current public health challenges in front of Chennai are somewhat ironic because the city has for long prided itself about its health capacity, even to the extent of making serious efforts to turn into a destination for healthcare tourism. And now, pummelled by an increasing wave of covid cases, the city is making a serious pivot towards telemedicine, which might remain in place even after the pandemic.

In a study, 82% of those who utilized the telemedicine facility were happy, said Dr R.M. Anjana, managing director and diabetologist at the Chennai-headquartered Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre. “Acceptance of telemedicine facilities remains suboptimal in our population, but greater accessibility and acceptance of technology could help individuals."

Dr V. Mohan, chairman of the centre, insists on lifestyle changes to handle the pandemic in the long-term. South-East Asian countries that have made a habit of wearing masks have been able to quickly recover from the pandemic, he said.

The biggest challenge, however, would be to reimagine the city itself, in a way which induces or promotes certain lifestyle changes. In a proposal submitted to the state government by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), various measures have been suggested as long-term initiatives, including an expansion in footpaths, cycling as an alternative transport mode, and a repurposing of streets into social spaces.

“Our streets may become a hotspot for transmission, threatening a second wave of covid. We need to rethink and redesign," said J. Sivasubramaniam, an advocate for sustainable transport systems with ITDP. Extending sidewalks to allow safe queuing, designating existing on-street parking as walking or waiting space, decentralizing markets are some of the suggestions made by ITDP. “Countries like New Zealand have already realized the importance of cycling and have been encouraging it", Sivasubramaniam added.

For now, the government is still too overwhelmed with the rapidly increasing number of cases. With more districts in the state now facing an imminent lockdown, a complete unlocking could take even more time than originally anticipated. But even for unlocking, Kanimozhi suggested, there should be a proper plan in place. “We want the government to do well. It does not mean that we want this government to fail because we are in Opposition."

Kavitha Muralidharan is a Chennai-based independent journalist

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