Following an announcement in July in the Legislative Assembly, the Tamil Nadu government has officially notified that the Chennai Metropolitan Area will increase from its current size of 1,189 sq. km to 8,878 sq. km, making it the largest city region in the country.
The region will extend to a distance of 100 km from the present city centre, engulf the entire Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts, and Arakkonam and Nemili taluks in Vellore district. It will attach about 1,709 additional villages. Chengalpattu will become part of the region and Tindivanam will be the city next door.
To include the hinterlands around the city for better planning is good in theory, but has it worked well in practice? Chennai has had a relatively smaller metropolitan area since 1975. The question is, has it helped plan the city better. If it has not, why expand the city region further?
For the last two decades, instead of distributing growth by developing small and medium-sized towns, developing large city regions has become the popular strategy among planners to manage urbanisation. Some cities have created mega regions to distribute the burgeoning population within the core city. Some have done it to avoid urban sprawl. A few have created mega regions to take advantage of the economy of scale. Making use of relatively cheap land and labour in the vicinity, cities have planned an array of economic activities at different places and integrated them as a region.
It is not clear yet whether the reason behind the expanded Chennai mega-region is economic. The Tamil Nadu State government has so far developed sporadic economic clusters, such as the automobile one in Oragadam. A few industrial centres have grown along the Bengaluru highway. If the planners intend to develop a network of economic clusters, based on locational assets, a strong transport integration plan linking clusters and residential areas would be necessary.
Two other challenges confront the proposed expansion — one is environmental; the other is governance. Incorporating vast peripheral areas without adequate planning has led to loss of environmental assets such as waterbodies that are essential for water management and prevention of urban floods. If unplanned, the addition of 1,700 villages, which is an opportunity to nurture urban agricultural practices, could pave the way for mindless urbanisation.