Chennai is expanding rapidly and pushing its boundaries. However, the transition is taking place more along the lines of tweaking the existing resources rather than fool proof planning. Nothing illustrates this better than the demolition of the Anna arch that was to make way for a branched flyover only to be followed by a subsequent order to halt the demolition. This is requested by none other than the Chief Minister herself.
"I have directed the officials not to remove the arch which is one of the city's landmarks. The alignment of the flyover linking EVR Salai (Poonamallee High Road) with Anna Nagar will be taken slightly to the eastern side and the work will resume," Jayalalithaa said on Wednesday. "I am happy to announce that attempts to remove the Peraringnar Anna Platinum Jubilee Arch have been stalled," she added.
Days earlier, officials from the highways department watched helplessly as workers struggled to demolish the 60 foot structure that was constructed in 1985 at MGR’s behest. This was done to commemorate the platinum jubilee of the late Chief Minister CN Annadurai. Cranes, drills and other demolition equipment only managed to create a small dent to a tiny portion of the arch. The struggle and the challenge in razing the structure had been widely reported in the media.
The realignment will entail a delay of at least six months in the nearly Rs 120 crore project. The dent made by the demolition crew to the structure prior to the chief minister’s intervention would also be rectified.
The U-turn on the Anna arch demolition also turned into a war of words between the Chief Minister and the DMK chief M Karunanidhi. “The decision to demolish the structure could not have been taken by the officials. After completing 70 per cent of demolition work, the Chief Minister has issued order for retaining it on the ground that it was a memorial constructed long time ago. Did it not occur to her when it was decided to demolish it?," he said.
The Chief Minister was quick to retort saying that the DMK was ‘enacting a farce’. She also added that the flyover was planned during the DMK’s tenure and no one had discussed the demolition of the arch with her. “Does the five-time chief minister (Karunanidhi) not know that government decisions are taken at several levels according to business rules?” she asked. She had the last word saying, “We have the satisfaction of protecting the Anna Arch. ”
The proposal to floor the twin arches, towering nearly 60 feet into the sky in order to accommodate an L-shaped flyover was planned during the previous DMK regime. The highways department began with issuing work order for the flyover early 2011. When the AIADMK came to power after a massive victory in the Assembly elections in May 2011, the project was allowed to take its designated course.
In many ways, the twin arches towering nearly 60 feet above ground, symbolise neo-modern Chennai. Developed in the early 1970s, Anna Nagar is the precursor to Velachery, Taramani, Perungudi, ECR, OMR and other desirable addresses in the metro today.
Anna Nagar is also a fine example of a well planned neighbourhood, where infrastructure development was done to a nicety. Schools, paved roads, proper water and sewerage connections, hospitals, tree lined avenues and more came up as real estate growth boomed and flourished. No other locality in Chennai has since duplicated this successful model.
It is ironical that such a well conceived locality has been caught in the thick of other development work. However, the controversy over the Anna arch demolition is nothing short of a telling commentary on our apathy to heritage and landmark buildings.
When the blue print for a flyover or a subway is tabled, shouldn’t concerned officials seek the opinion of expert urban planners and environment and heritage conservationists? Did it have to take a chief minister’s intervention for officials to come up with plan B? Couldn't the misadventure be avoided if someone raised the question of the significance of the Anna arch?
Time and time again the city has several lost heritage and landmark structures which have been hastily pulled down in the name of development. In the last few years we have lost the centuries old Admiralty House, the historic Kalaivanar Arangam and more recently the rear portion of the landmark P Orr and Sons building.
How many wake up calls do we need? When will civil society be included in consultations on development issues that intersect with our lives?
Yes, we all know that in the last five years Chennai’s population - both human and vehicular - has risen to staggering proportions. Its time we incorporate similar democracy and plurality in our urban design as well.
Anna Nagar has showed us how way back in the 70s it was designed to absorb a huge influx of residential and commercial activity.
Chennai is not a glass curtain-walled city and we can all be thankful that it wont be going the Shanghai way any time soon. It is all the more imperative to come up with masterly designs that offer an inclusive and sustainable development.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist