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Chennai City Connect

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Working with Government
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The system does respond and there is reason to be optimistic. That is our conclusion of over five years of work in Chennai by Chennai City Connect Foundation (CCCF). But it takes time, patience, empathy and living with some disappointments. Further, success in this field requires stitching together collaborations with a wide range of organizations and individuals.

Indian cities seem incapable of delivering even the most basic of infrastructure and services at a quality that citizens are increasingly demanding. From simple footpaths to complex public transportation, electricity and water services, to mention just a few, our cities seem to struggle to achieve even basic standards common in advanced economies.

The picture closer to the system is even more discouraging. Public systems function when it has capabilities and processes to engage with public on a continuous basis, absorb the increasing number of demands, continuously evaluate its functioning, constantly upgrade technologies and methodologies and so on.

A visit to say, Hong Kong, can be very deceptive. While enjoying seamless transfer from Metro Rail to buses using the Octopus Card with unbelievable ease or enjoy perfectly safe portable water from even the bathroom tap, one does not see the well oiled, complex machinery behind the scenes that make this possible. There have been decades of iterative urban improvements to reach that level of citizen satisfaction.

We need to urgently help improve the capacity of our cities to deliver quality of life to all its citizens—rich and poor. Our cities do not have much choice given rapid urbanisation. Any attempt will require considerable resources, long term dedication, world class expertise, coalitions and networks and sustained engagement at various levels of governments.

One key stakeholder–the industry—has considerable resources and enlightened self interest (city with better quality of life attracts talent and investments) to help improve the city. Yet there are few venues for meaningful contribution and usually ends up complaining from the sideline about the lack of infrastructure and services. Chennai City Connect Foundation was formed as a collaborative platform for industry and other civil society organizations.

One key lesson CCCF has learned is the importance of building a coalition, especially with organizations and individuals who have expertise and know-how. This includes building bridges with various department and agencies of the government. While this may take time and patience, it is vital that these agencies buy into the overall objectives of the coalition. Let us examine some of the achievements of CCCF over the last five years.

CCCF is facilitating restoration of around 43 water bodies around Chennai. In this we have been very fortunate to partner with Care Earth (CE), a non-profit trust dedicated to the protection of environment and developing science and community based solutions to preventing environmental degradation.

CCCF has developed good working relationship with government officials and processes for navigating interesting concepts, pilots and projects within the system. By combining the strengths of the two organisations, CCCF and CE have been able to highlight the importance of preserving large systems of wetlands around Chennai. Starting with the iconic Pallikaranai marshland, using the scientific and urban design framework we have prepared, state government has started preparing DPRs and master plans for implementation for the 43 prominent wetlands.  

In the area of sustainable transportation, CCCF is facilitating redesign about 50 kms of bus route roads and develop station area plans for Metro Rail and MRTS to promote intermodal integration. Here the impressive expertise and network of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has been very timely. We have also attracted around 25 architects and firms who are designing world class pedestrian facilities, parking and other amenities for Corporation of Chennai and related agencies to implement.  

ITDP has helped us invite some international superstars of this field—Enrique Penalosa, Janet Khan, Amanda Burden—to showcase the possible and helped us access experts from leading transportation agencies like LTA Singapore and TfL London lend us their international credibility and experience. We are collaborating with ITDP to develop a BRTS plan for Chennai; analyse and recommend policy options for promoting Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and develop cutting edge mechanism to employ land value capture to finance massive, sustainable transportation projects badly needed in the city.

We are developing Intermediate Public Transport policy for the state in collaboration with EMBARQ. They are also helping improve Chennai bus services with their extensive experience from other Indian and global cities. Similarly, SMART at University of Michigan brings a network of international experience and network; Mapunity and City Connect in Bangalore bring years of battle hardened experience from an equally exasperating Indian city.

To our pleasant surprise we have found media, especially a host of committed journalists and editors, our important ally. Communicating with others in the city about exciting possibilities, tough choices city has to make to provide better quality of life and the need for change in the way we view these issues has been easy due to the support from print, radio and TV media.

Last, but not the least, our partnership with people within the system. There are plenty of politicians and officials at all levels who would like to help improve the city and who are willing to take the risks. But formulating public policy, stitching together multiple policies and issues, or even to evolve something as simple as a decent footpath, requires loads of time, patience, expertise, network and so on. These luxuries are not afforded to insiders who are stuck in constant fire fighting mode. They could do with assistance from those outside of government to plan the right things for the city.

There is ample scope for organisations like CCCF who are willing to help in an objective and unbiased manner. Like in the case of cell phone technologies, our cities don’t have to reinvent everything from scratch. We have the opportunity to leapfrog, save our precious resources by borrowing what is appropriate from experienced and progressive cities of the world. Invent and reinvent when necessary, adopt and adapt when possible. The sum total of our experience is there is plenty of reason for optimism about the future of Indian cities.