What’s delaying Tamil Nadu’s smart city projects?

What’s delaying Tamil Nadu’s smart city projects?

Four years after its selection under the Smart Cities Mission, the Madurai Corporation recently met for the first time to discuss the issue. Activists allege that this shows how smart city projects in the state are being marred by myriad problems

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Four years after its selection under the Smart Cities Mission, the Madurai Corporation recently met for the first time to discuss the project.

Activists allege that this shows how smart city projects in the state are being marred by myriad problems ranging from the nonexistence of Smart City Advisory Forums (SCAF) to unfilled CEO posts to corruption at various levels of the administration.

Kicked off by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in 2015, under the mission, 11 cities, which are also corporations, in Tamil Nadu have been chosen (the most by far in the country).

They are: Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, Vellore, Salem, Madurai,  Trichy, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli, and Thoothukudi. The state government gave proposals for 12 cities under the scheme, but Dindigul has not been chosen in the last five rounds.

Each city has its own needs and projects were announced accordingly. These projects are classified into area-based development (ABD) projects and pan city projects covering larger parts of the cities. Under ABD, the projects are in the nature of city improvement (retrofitting), city renewal (redevelopment) and city extension (greenfield development).

The projects announced range from water supply to solid waste management to road redesign and housing. They are expected to be completed within five years from the time the cities were chosen. Each city has been allocated Rs 1,000 crore to carry out these projects and the funds have been shared equally by the Centre and state governments. Besides, the corporations are also allowed to raise their own funds.

According to data provided by the Lok Sabha on March 2020 in reply to MP Dayanidhi Maran’s question, in Chennai, out of 42 projects 19 have been completed. In Coimbatore 35 out of 73, Tiruppur, out of 24 projects, none, Erode 2 out of 19, Vellore 3 out of 30, Salem 14 out of 48, Madurai 1 out of 16, Trichy 1 out of 18, Thanjavur 3 out of 29, Tirunelveli 4 out of 27, and Thoothukudi 14 out of 40.

If one goes by the stipulated five-year timeframe, then Chennai and Coimbatore should have completed their projects between January 2016 and January 2021, since these two cities were chosen in the first round. In the second round none of the cities from the state were selected. In the third, in September 2016, Vellore, Madurai, Thanjavur and Salem were selected. In the fourth round, in June 2017, Trichy, Tiruppur, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi were selected. Erode was chosen in the fifth round in January 2018.

No CEOs for SPVs

Except for Chennai and Tirunelveli, none of the cities has created a dedicated website for this mission. When it comes to on-the-ground progress, even two-and-a-half years after their selection, no city has completed even 50 per cent of its projects.

Moreover, under this mission, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) should have been created to plan, implement, manage and operate the projects. It should be headed by a chief executive officer (CEO). But, except Chennai and Coimbatore, no city has filled up the vacancy. In those cities, the corporation commissioners themselves act as managing directors for the SPVs. The district collectors and the local MPs play the roles of chairperson and co-chairperson of SCAF.

“According to the mission guidelines, the SCAF meetings should be convened by the CEO and it should meet at least three times a year. Since the meeting was not convened by the respective authority, I conducted this meeting independently on January 19,” said Su Venkatesan, Madurai MP.

While adding that such meetings would soon be conducted monthly, since Madurai is just six months away from the stipulated time for the mission to be completed, Venkatesan said his initiative has made the people in other cities aware of the mission.

“On social media, people have started demanding their respective MPs and MLAs to conduct the meetings and review the work,” he said.

Asked about the fate of the unfinished projects, Venkatesan said that it is the Smart City Mission Board’s responsibility to ask for an extension.

No prior consultation with public

K Kathirmathiyon, secretary, Coimbatore Consumer Cause, said before carrying out the projects, the authorities did not consult public and civil societies.

“In Coimbatore, there are 24 lakes located inside the city. No other smart city in the country has such a resource. So a total of nine lake beautification projects are going on. The remaining lakes are being used as landfill. Environmentalists and civil society organisations were not consulted before they took up these projects. If they did, we could have told them the real needs of the city,” he said.

The beautification process includes removing encroachments, strengthening the bunds and laying the pavements, and creating more parks.

“Under the mission, encroachments have been cleared, which was not possible in the past. The corporation has removed encroachments and the families were allotted houses by the slum clearance board. While we welcome such initiatives, the authorities should not reduce the water storage levels of the lakes. They must also ensure that other debris are not thrown in other lakes,” said Kathirmathiyon.

In order to ensure that the authorities don’t reduce the water storage capacity and, in fact, restore damaged lakes, the organisation filed a public interest litigation with the Madras High Court in 2016. The court has directed the authorities to act accordingly.

“While the corporation is ensuring that the water storage capacity is not reduced, they are overlooking restoring the damaged lakes. Also, they were directed by the court that they should submit a status report of the lakes every three months to the petitioners. But they are not following it,” Kathirmathiyon added.

Regressive practices in the name of development

Beautification projects like laying smart roads and setting up roadside parks are inspired by western countries. There is no problem in having such projects but what the city need is basic infrastructure like stormwater drainage. But that is where a lot of scam occurs, said Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor, Arappor Iyakkam.

“The corporation has laid a smart footpath in T Nagar. But whenever it rains, the area fills with water. There we need stormwater drains. However, we got footpaths. Likewise, in East Coast Road people are demanding drainage facilities. But there the corporation constructs stormwater drains that would affect the water aquifers in that area and prevent natural draining of floodwater,” he said.

Under the mission, the Chennai Corporation announced it would build “missing link stormwater drains”. It is a technique used to construct stormwater drainage wherever there is a gap between two existing drainages. However, instead of doing that, the civic body demolished the existing drainage systems and constructing a new one in its place, Venkatesan alleged.

“For construction of drains, the corporation has floated pre-fixed tenders in which the price of one unit M-Sand has been quoted about Rs 10,000, when it can be purchased for Rs 5,000. This has caused a great loss to the exchequer,” he added. The NGO has brought out such kinds of illegalities and filed many court cases alleging the role of municipal administration minister SP Velumani.

When The Federal contacted N Rajakumar, CEO, Coimbatore Smart City Limited, he said only the corporation commissioner has the power to comment on the projects.

“With regard to the website, it’s under construction,” he said.

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