It has perhaps more to do with the 2021 Assembly elections than the ground truth. Ministers from Madurai and down south have raised the issue of a second capital for Tamil Nadu, suggesting that Madurai is best placed to serve that purpose.
Not to be left out the Minister from Tiruchirappalli argued that his town was more centrally located and even the late MGR had mooted the idea of developing a second capital in and around Tiruchi. That was even during his first tenure from 1977 to 1980.
Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami was quick to scotch the discussion saying these are personal views of the Ministers and his government was not even toying with the idea. But the debate has been opened up and given his love for his western region the Chief Minister might even suggest Salem or Coimbatore.
Leaving aside the choice of the centre, let us first examine whether a second capital is at all needed for the State. Proponents of the decongestion, decentralisation and development paradigm plump for the project, while the financial wizards dread the very prospect.
It is true that Greater Chennai is already heavily congested and the current pandemic has exposed this problem even more. Though suburbs like Thiruvallur, Sriperumpudur, Oragadam and even Gummidipoondi have become industrial clusters, people are refusing to move out of the core city. So much so the industries located in these centres are forced to run a fleet of buses every day to transport the executives and employees.
What happens if a second capital is developed? Some of the Ministries and departments will move out of Chennai and take with them the government employees and those linked to these departments, including NGOs and other agencies.
Moreover, a whole lot of construction activity, including housing and infrastructure development, will take shape in the chosen centre. People from districts nearer to this second capital will find it easier and cheaper to get things done. Perhaps the Chief Minister and Ministers who continue to sit in Chennai can spend a few days in the second capital every month, just as those functioning from there can visit Chennai. That way, the pressure on Fort St. George and the Secretariat will also come down.
But the question is who can fund the project. In the current context, it may require about Rs. 10,000 crore to set up such a capital city. The Centre is certainly not going to assist such a venture.
Take the examples of other States. The three new States carved out in the first decade of this century – Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand — have built their own capitals, but a lot more needs to be done there. Punjab and Haryana, for their own reasons, still share Chandigarh as their capital, though Haryana has developed other centres.
When undivided Andhra was bifurcated as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the latter was asked to build a new capital with Central assistance. Andhra’s first Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu chose Amaravathi, near Vijayawada, as the new capital. When he lost the next election, his successor Jaganmohan Reddy decided to develop three or even five capital regions. This despite the fact that major developments, including funding, had already taken place in Amaravathi. It became a political and regional development issue. What happens if Jaganmohan loses the next election remains a moot question.
Coming to the town to be chosen in Tamil Nadu, the toss-up between Madurai and Tiruchi seems dicey.
If Madurai is chosen, it could the harbinger for the elusive development of the southern districts. With a Bench of the Madras High Court already located there, this may be an additional feature. Such a move could also trigger the elevation of Madurai as an international airport, though it does receive foreign flights.
In the case of Tiruchi, its location at the centre of the State becomes a major plus point. It is already an international airport and this is getting a huge facelift now. It is also well connected by road, rail and air not just within the State but also outside. Above all, for the present ruling party, MGR had thought of Tiruchi too. He was far ahead of his times, thinking even of economic criteria for reservation but abandoning it because of virulent opposition.
Anyway, given its current financial crises, Tamil Nadu cannot think or even dream of developing a second capital. But it’s time and need will come. The best compromise might be to choose a convenient location on the Tiruchi-Madurai highway!