How Asiad Colony battled diabetes rise by building a park

Sriram Balakrishnan: The pavement outside the office of the Assistant Engineer, Corporation of Chennai located at Brindavan Street, Mylapore has been encroached upom by hutments with full knowledge of Corporation officials since this is right outside the Assistant Engineer's office. Are Corporation officials endorsing encroachments? These hutments have been there for over a year.

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Walk to be healthy: so we’ve been told. But is there actual evidence to prove walking is an intervention that will lead to positive health outcomes?

Yes, there is. And, in our own backyard, too. The World Health Organisation’s 2005 publication, ‘Preventing chronic diseases, a vital investment,’ showcased how local efforts to create enabling environments for walking had borne positive results for the community. It was showcased also because it was an instance of a community taking ownership, advancing and executing an agenda for the welfare of the community.

Since then, it has come to be called the Asiad Colony experiment. An epidemiological study done in 1998-99 indicated there was a 12.5 per cent prevalence of diabetes among residents of the Tiruvanmiyur colony. “After the study, we built awareness about the need for physical exercise, and urged the residents to do something about it,” says V. Mohan, of Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, who conducted the study.

Convinced, the residents decided they would create an environment that would have the potential to increase physical activity patterns. They mobilised resources to build a park in the area. A piece of land was identified and the civic authorities’ permission was sought and received for constructing a park. The park was completed in 2002. The residents contributed a nominal annual fee for the maintenance of the park.

When Dr. Mohan went back for a follow up, he was surprised by the results, he says. There was a threefold increase in people undertaking physical activity (from less than 15 per cent in 1998-99 to 45 per cent in 2006-08) and in the interim, the prevalence of diabetes had increased from 12.4 per cent to 15.4 per cent, as against the more dramatic rise in prevalence — from 6.5 per cent to 15.3 per cent — in a community where no intervention was in place.

Inspired by the Asiad Colony experience, another residential community in Chennai took up the task of building themselves a park.

“The big thing here is how public effort resulted in changing environments to aid the cause of residents. Subsequently, a big movement started to renovate and create more parks in Chennai, an initiative that was spearheaded by the then Corporation commissioner M.P. Vijayakumar. It’s an indication of the power of the community and what it can achieve,” Dr. Mohan says.

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