The Heritage Conservation Committee appointed by the Government of Tamil Nadu following a specific directive of the High Court of Madras, completed one year in July 2011. The Committee has recently been very much in the news, following its successful representation to the Chennai Metro Rail Limited regarding the alignment of railway lines and stations that are planned to be in close proximity to heritage buildings in the city. That is definitely a positive development but the general working of the Committee has left much to be desired. This may be the right moment to critically evaluate its functioning.
When the High Court passed its judgement, it had on hand a list of a little over 400 heritage buildings. This was a list prepared for an entirely different matter, a case involving outdoor hoardings and was put together mainly for the purpose of enumerating structures that ought not to be hidden behind hoardings. It therefore largely listed heritage structures on arterial roads and did not look at buildings that are in side streets. But it was still a list nevertheless and when the High Court ordered that a Heritage Conservation Committee ought to be formed, it also added that the listed buildings had to come under the Committee’s purview.
The Committee when formed largely comprised government bureaucrats who toed the official line. It took its own time to send out letters to the owners of the listed properties. It is reliably learnt that several owners of heritage properties never received the letter. The Committee is yet to visit most of the heritage sites that were listed. It is therefore not in touch with what is happening in most cases.
Taking advantage of the delay in communications, some owners went ahead and demolished their buildings. The Government was the biggest culprit for in its hurry to build the new (and now unwanted) Assembly, it merrily destroyed five listed buildings, with no explanations being asked. Others were not so lucky. It is reliably learnt that the Church of South India, which demolished the Bible Society Building on Memorial Hall Road, has been asked to come up with plans to build a structure that is aligned to what was done away with. But the old structure is no longer there nevertheless. That some action has been taken is small satisfaction. A bigger success was in getting those in charge of St Teresa’s Church to give up ideas of demolition. No action was however taken in the case of the Anderson’s Church on NSC Bose Road, where extensive ‘renovation’ work was undertaken in the interior, without any competent authority overseeing the effort.
The one and only communication that the Committee ever sent out was vague in the extreme. Beyond stating that the owner could not demolish or alter the structure, the letter did not have anything constructive as to what could be done with the buildings. This tied the hands of the owners and lack of maintenance efforts has ensured that at least two heritage structures – the GPO on Rajaji Salai and the Madrasa-E-Azam on Mount Road have partially collapsed. To what purpose is any action now on the matter when the damage is done? Added to this is the sheer apathy of other Government departments. It is now understood that the Committee is sitting in judgement over whether the historic Mint on the eponymous street needs to be demolished. The Government it is believed, is all for it.
It is in the light of the rather lacklustre performance that the successful representation to Metro Rail appears a major breakthrough. The Committee has managed to get the Metro Rail to prepare revised drawings and plans for its stations at locations near the Law College, Higginbothams and a couple of other places. It is significant however that none of these revised designs have been made public and we have only the Committee’s word for it.
Taken over all, the performance of the Committee is below par. But as we still have a significant bit of heritage left in the city, any improvement by the Committee in its functioning will go a long way in saving what has survived thus far.