Chennai’s pursuit towards a green and inclusive city

Rapid urbanisation in Chennai is leaving the city's vulnerable susceptible to effects of unplanned growth and climate change.

Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and one of the six mega cities of India, is home to about 10.9 million people.  The local government aims to make Tamil Nadu a $1 trillion economy by 2030, according to reports. As a fallout of this economic and urban growth, Chennai faces challenges of land and water resource management, housing and land rights, and mobility. The city’s most vulnerable groups are already facing consequences of these issues and several efforts are underway to not only improve the city, but also the lives of its inhabitants. This photo essay looks at some of these challenges and solutions.

Ecological restoration, displacement and resettlement

More than 30 per cent of Chennai’s population lives in informal settlements adjoining the Adyar and Cooum rivers and the Buckingham Canal. Over the past several decades, municipal and industrial waste has turned the waters into polluted sewers. To give its rivers back to the city, ecological restoration work began in 2006. The Adyar is already recovering, showing signs of improved flora and fauna. However, in the process of restoration, families living in urban slums along Chennai’s waterways have been displaced and resettled in multi-storey tenements like Kannagi Nagar and Semmancheri on the outer limits of Chennai

Most of these tenements lack maintenance and have inadequate provision of basic services like water, electricity, schools and clinics have worsened the plight of these people. Moreover, the displacement has cost many residents access to livelihoods. Long commutes to workplaces have forced many to quit their jobs. Some say that Kannagi Nagar is a ghetto of criminals but people living in the endless columns of 23,700 houses here only hope for living with dignity.

Land and livelihood rights

Fishing communities along the 14 coastal villages of Chennai face serious consequences of rapid urbanisation and climate change. On the one hand, rise in sea level and coastal erosion are the biggest natural hazards. On the other hand, development projects threaten fisherfolk’s livelihoods. In 2010, the state government proposed an elevated expressway cutting across intertidal zones in these villages. The construction of elevated expressways will result in grazing of these villages, displacement of fishing communities, loss of livelihoods and severe threat to marine ecology. Some beaches on this coastal stretch are nesting grounds for critically endangered Olive Ridley turtles. Saravanan, fisherman and coordinator at the Coastal Resource Centre (CRC), upon enquiring about the project learnt that the land on which they worked was classified as wasteland, feasible for development projects. The project was stalled after fishing communities protested.

Saravanan has been mapping fishing villages to establish evidence for fisherfolks’ traditional land rights. He says: “We have always known that common land belongs to the fishing villages. There was no documentation to prove this, so to protect our common lands, we are mapping our villages.” The Coastal Resource Centre has so far mapped over 150 villages in Tamil Nadu and is extending training in other states.

Resilient Chennai and way forward

According to sources at the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, several sustainable growth plans are anticipated in the third Master Plan 2026, which emphasize on affordable housing for the poor and a blue-green print for land-use and conservation of water bodies.  Consultations were carried out with transgender people, people with disability and fishing community members to understand their requirements. Moreover, through Vision 2023, the government aims to make Chennai slum free by providing housing for urban poor.

In June 2019, Chennai Corporation launched a resilience strategy in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, a programme by the Rockefeller Foundation. Urban Horticulture was initiated through roof-top farms, with a specific goal of ensuring food security, nutrition and livelihood training for the families in resettlement colonies. The Water as Leverage project was introduced for stormwater management, urban heat island mitigation and to promote nature-based solutions for water needs.

However, as Chennai-based writer Nityanand Jayaraman said during our visit to Pulicat where Adani’s port expansion remains stalled: “Engineering solutions are not the only answer to Chennai’s urbanisation and climate change challenges. Political changes are required and land use challenges need to be addressed.”

Inclusive sustainable growth requires strategic, comprehensive policies that consider the needs and aspirations of even the most vulnerable communities to ensure that everyone in the city grows together.

To ensure development in the truest sense, Chennai needs to address both short-term and long-term aspects of coastal development, housing and resettlement, livelihood opportunities, transport accessibility, social and environmental impact of projects, social equality and ecological restoration.

The initiatives led by Saravanan or the fishing women of Pulicat, programmes on inclusive growth, as well as programmes for improved sustainable habitation and eco-restoration, could prove to be the pathways to lead Chennai into greater resilience and into becoming a city where everyone can live with dignity and has equal opportunities for growth.


Shruti Kulkarni is an independent filmmaker, photographer, poet and artist. She has worked as a film consultant and video documentalist for organisations working in sectors of development, sustainability and environment & conservation. Her films have featured a variety of issues from  tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction, livelihoods of coastal communities, post-disaster reconstruction, to sustainable architecture and habitats. Find out more about her work at shrutikulkarni.format.com.

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