Remembering Sir Alladi on #ConstitutionDay

November 26, 2015
Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar

Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar

The Government has declared November 26 as Constitution Day. This is because this was the day in 1949 when the Constituent Assembly accepted the draft. The Government is linking it with DR BR Ambedkar’s 125 birth year. While not in any way denying the contribution of Babasaheb, which was immense, I would like to only quote what James Madison said when he was referred to as the father of the US Constitution – “It is not, like the fabled Goddess of wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”

The Constituent Assembly first met on December 9, 1946. The man designated Constitutional Advisor was Sir BN Rau ICS, a man from Madras who was then a Judge of the Calcutta High Court and who would later become a Judge in the International Court of Justice. Of the 296 seats in the Assembly, the representation from Madras Presidency was considerable (see list) and several played an important role. But the most stellar was that of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, the eminent jurist. This was despite his chronic ill-health.

Alladi’s was a rags to riches story. At an early age he had made his mark at the Madras Bar and by 1929 he had become Advocate General, one of the youngest to occupy the post. He held it till 1943- for a record 15 years. In the Constituent Assembly, Sir Alladi made it to the drafting committee, other members of which were BR Ambedkar, Sir Brij Lal Mitter, Sir N Gopalaswami Aiyangar, KM Munshi, Md Saadullah, V Madhav Rao and DP Khaitan. When BL MItter died in 1948, his position was filled in by TT Krishnamachari. Though Ambedkar was elected Chairman, he expressed his surprise at this and in his speech while presenting the draft said that the post ought to have been Sir Alladi’s.

In the final document that emerged, it is accepted that Alladi’s imprint can be seen in the following topics – citizenship, fundamental rights, directive principles, judiciary in the Union and the States, distribution of legislative powers, articles dealing with the powers of the President and the Governor, and adult suffrage. Two others who made significant contributions were Munshi and Gopalaswami Aiyangar. It was said the trio were the Three Musketeers with Ambedkar being D’Artagnan.

The Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950. Sir Alladi passed away in October 1953. His palatial house, Ekamra Niwas still stands on Luz Church Road though it is no longer visible, the beautiful lawn long having made way for development. It is a historic property, for one part of it encompasses what was once Norton Lodge, the residence of the Norton family, which too played an important role in the judicial history of Madras.

This article borrows heavily from the book A Statesman Among Jurists, A biography of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, by his son Alladi Kuppuswami, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh (published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993).

Other Madras Presidency members of the Constituent Assembly:

OV Alagesan, Ammu Swaminadhan, M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, Moturi Satyanarayana, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Durgabai Deshmukh, Kala Venkatarao, Sir N Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, D Govinda Das, Rev. Jerome D’Souza, P Kakkan, K Kamaraj, VC Kesava Rao, TT Krishnamachari, L Krishnaswami Bharathi, P Kunhiraman, M Thirumula Rao, VI Muniswamy Pillay, Raja Sir MA Muthiah Chettiyar, Nadimuthu Pillai S Nagappa, PL Narasimha Raju, B Pattabhi Sitaramayya, C Perumalswamy Reddy, T Prakasam, SH Prater, Raja Sir Swetachalapati Ramakrishna Ranga Rao of Bobbili, Sir RK Shanmukham Chetti, TA Ramalingam Chettiyyar, Ramanath Goenka, OP Ramaswamy Reddiyar, NG Ranga, N Sanjeeva Reddy, K Santhanam, B Shiva Rao, Kallur Subba Rao, U Srinivasa Mallayya, Dr P Subbarayan, C Subramaniam, V Subramaniam, MC Veerabahu, PM Velayudapani, AK Menon, TJM Wilson, Mohamed Ismail Sahib, KTM Ahmed Ibrahim, Mahboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur, B Pocker Sahib Bahadur

Names taken from the Indian Parliamentary Debates records –

Elegy on the death of an electrician

November 25, 2015

The colony came up in the 1950s. Roads were wide, drains worked, trees gave shade. All was well with the world. These upper class people needed their servants who settled into what became a huge slum nearby. The colony residents complained to each other about the area being degraded but did nothing about it. They needed the servants you see. As for their living conditions, what is the Government there for Saar? 

In the 1960s came a huge cyclone and the government was faced with the problem of housing the affected families. The slum near the colony was selected as a suitable area for this. An election was coming and so it was imperative to do something. Build houses for them said the Government. But the area will get congested protested a Corporation Engineer. And it is against the land rules. Water supply will become an issue he said. The Government had him transferred to the Archives and told his successor to adjust. This was done and the slum colony doubled. The Government was re-elected. Most of the new allottees went back to their original slum after renting out their new premises. These became shops and because shops need a street frontage, many took over the sidewalks and built facades on them. 

Those in the bungalows protested but the local MLA died just then, bringing about a by-election. The bungalow dwellers were promised an eviction drive after the election. Just then the opposition engineered a protest by the slum dwellers, who were now demanding electricity. This was agreed to at once. Makeshift junction boxes came up, from which cables dangled all over the place. When it rained, someone or the other was electrocuted but then in a country with such a vast population Saar something like this will happen no? By then, many in the bungalows had begun to argue in favour of the shops – everything was just around the corner they said. Mamas who smoked on the sly were vociferous in their support. The shops were there to stay.
The groundwater soon dried up. There were some who pointed out that this was because of the excess drawing from the ground and the covering of the area in concrete and asphalt but these were shouted down as idealistic. This is a poor country Saar they said, and such notions are for Europe. A protest in which everyone joined in, bungalow and slum, soon resulted in plastic water tanks to be put up at every street corner. Someone said building a temple would be of help and so up it came, blocking off part of a street. As though in answer to this prayer the rains came copiously and flooded the area. The Corporation engineer said this was because the temple had blocked the drain. But who can evict the Gods? The local minorities complained that the temple played religious music each morning and disturbed their sleep. So a church and a mosque were built, at two other corners. Now music was on tap for most of the day. The area flooded every year but the wells remained dry. Raising the road level was the only answer. This was done. 
By the 1980s, the bungalows were emptying one by one. Children from the US came down to strike real estate deals. Development was the order of the day. Brokers, contractors and architects swarmed the area. They all had only one refrain – maximise the return from the land. As per law the road width permitted only ground plus two floors, but everyone knew someone in the Corporation and so many additional floors were built. All were regularised later. Because the area was prone to flooding, these new highrises were built on raised plinths. Nobody wanted drain in front of thei property (market value Saar) and so quite a few were closed. The roads flooded even more. And so the road level was raised. The slum opposite protested. A meeting was held and it was decided that the place would be demolished and redeveloped into four storey housing board flats. This was done. And yet the roads flooded during rains. And still the wells ran dry. Nobody bothered – they had water delivered by tanker and if that failed there were 500 feet bore wells in every building to tap some deep vein of subterranean water. No matter it was brackish or blackish or both. 
Last week came the mother of all downpours. There was no let up. The water levels rose alarmingly. The drains were working in the reverse, bringing in water from elsewhere. There was only one option – the authorities dug a deep trench in pouring rain for which everybody praised them. The water began filling the gaping hole. To avoid any accidents, the authorities placed a set of metal barricades across the trench to prevent people from crossing over. But this is the land of the enterprising. People thought nothing of jumping across. Some two wheeler riders discovered that if you moved a barricade or two, you could go ‘manage’. Even cars followed suit, though they did have a bumpy ride and the occupants cursed the authorities. 
Not everyone was so lucky. An electrician (father of two) tried crossing the trench on his bike, fell in, was pulled out and died a short while later. Residents of the colony staged a protest against the failed infrastructure of the area. The incident received wide media coverage. The authorities promised action. 

Ding dong Dengue

November 25, 2015

The jury is still out on the dreaded illness. The Man from Madras Musings, who is no Henry Higgins, has however spent some time in analysing how people say it. The more refined ones, or at least those who have pre-tensions in that direction, speak of it as dengi. There are several others who voice it as dengu. And then there are some who insist that the u and e are silent and say it is deng, rather like the comrade from China who ruled that country for decades. MMM is still waiting for ding and (horrors!) dong.By way of its name it may be more musical than chikungunya, but in terms of impact it appears to be just as bad. MMM learns that, unlike malaria, it is the day mosquito that causes this illness. He has also been informed by reliable sources that almost every hospital in the city is full of victims of this dreaded vector’s bite. Many are being turned away for lack of space. MMM will not be surprised if a medical entrepreneur or two has already begun planning hospitals exclusively dedicated to the mosquito. After all, given the way it is happening now, they can be assured of patients the year round – between malaria, chikun gunya and dengue. Some have already begun milking the crisis for what it is worth. Those who call on them with unspecified complaints are immediately told to undergo the dengue procedure. And since not many patients know how they are to be tested for it, they are made to undergo examinations meant for bubonic plague, telangiectasis and glandular botts for good measure as well, not to mention adenoids, mumps and vesicular emphysema of the lungs. The end result is a fat bill on the seeing of which patients show signs of other distress, necessitating further tests. MMM strongly suspects that some of these hospitals may soon come up with schemes such as ‘Get Dengue and Enjoy Chikun gunya Tests for Free’ or ‘Family Plans for Dengue – Bring two patients and get a third tested for free’ or ‘Spend a weekend at our hospital resort getting tested for Dengue – swimming pool, restaurant and gym facilities thrown in for your family while you get tested.’

Our Corporation, however, has the motto – ‘deny the dengue’. That venerable institution has taken a leaf out of the positive thinker’s manual and decided that if it keeps saying there is no dengue, the mosquitoes will realise they are not wanted here and will take their custom elsewhere, say to Kolkata or Mumbai. Ask anyone from the civic body and after first hotly denying its existence, they then say that a few isolated cases have been reported but this is nothing compared to the situation in the Amazon forests or the mortality when the Panama Canal was dug.

The stock market is also interesting itself in dengue. MMM believes that there is what is known as a bullish sentiment as far as mosquito repellents are concerned. Another group that is expected to do well comprises companies making those electric tennis racquets that no well dressed male or female in Chennai steps out without. These are to be waved around at all times, thereby swatting the mosquitoes. What is better is that they electrocute them. But before you rush to buy one, MMM advises you to tarry a brief while. 2016 is an election year and some political party or the other may offer free electric swatters in exchange for your vote.

Know Fort St George – 15, the monuments in St Mary’s

November 23, 2015

One of the most striking aspects of St Mary’s in the Fort is the number of funerary monuments, commemorative plaques, intramural tombstones and statues that dot its interior. Going through each one of them is perhaps a chore best left to epigraphers and historians, but some of them do merit a second look. Before we go on to them, however, a word about the hidden altar of the church would be in order.

Today, as you stand facing the east, all you see is Willison’s depiction of The Last Supper dominating the altar wall. Thanks to its dark brown background, it gives the entire church a slightly gloomy feel. This was not always so, for behind the painting is a full length stained glass window that has inscribed above and below it the altar verse of St Mary’s – ‘If Ye Love Me Keep My Commandments.’ This is an extract from the Bible. There is no record as to when the painting was shifted to block the window but when it did, it cut off all light from the east. Then, probably in order to protect window and painting, the Archaeological Survey of India in 1950, with no doubt the best intentions, built a brick wall on the eastern front, thereby entombing the stained glass between the painting and the wall. That means this altar window, or the hidden true altar, can be accessed only if The Last Supper is moved and the wall demolished!

Let us now look at those who, like the wall, are entombed within the church. At the foot of the space marked for the choir, pulpit and lectern, are two rows of rectangular slabs, below which lie some illustrious men. The first line begins with Sir George Ward, Governor of Madras for a brief while in 1860, dying of cholera within a few weeks of taking office. Next to him lies the Rt. Hon Vere Henry, Lord Hobart, also Governor of Madras and a victim of typhoid, his death happening in 1872. After his tomb is one that has inscribed on it a cross and the words ‘In Memoriam’. And this has a story to tell.

George Pigot was Governor of Madras twice, in the 18th Century. But even before that, he had proved his mettle, being a go-getter who played an important role in the defence of Madras during the French siege of 1758/59. He became Governor subsequently, indulged in all the malpractices that those in power then did and retired to England in 1763 with a fortune of Rs 40 lakhs. He purchased an Irish peerage, became Lord Pigot and would have settled down to a life of leisure had he not been called back as Governor of Madras in 1775. The Nawab had just then invaded and occupied Tanjore, egged on by Members in Council and several dubashes, all of whom wanted to lay their hands on the fertile Cauvery delta. The Company, however, frowned on it and Tanjore was restored to its rightful ruler but not before Pigot had fallen out with his Council on the matter of the correct procedure for restoration. He was arrested by his detractors and sent to St. Thomas’ Mount where he was kept in some sort of house arrest though he was free to move around there and also entertain. While there, he suddenly died, the circumstances of his death having never been established clearly. His body was brought hastily to St. Mary’s and buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which was forgotten. In 1875, when the space before the chancel was being dug to accommodate Lord Hobart, an unmarked coffin was found. The new Governor, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, decreed that this ought to be the last resting place of Pigot and had the slab now seen placed over the spot.

In the second row of intramural burials is the tomb of Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras, who died of cholera at Gooty in what is now Andhra Pradesh in 1827. He was initially buried there and it was only in 1831 that his remains were shifted to St Mary’s. On a pillar close by is a portrait medallion in his memory. Munro was greatly loved and respected by the people of Madras, an affection that continued long enough for people such as Rajaji to speak in his praise. His equestrian statue stands on the Island, not far from St Mary’s.

That would complete the roster of Governors of Madras buried here, all except the first among them to merit this honour – Francis Hastings, who held that office between 1720 and 1721. He is interred just outside the church proper, his stone lying beneath the tower’s arch that leads to the walled garden. Buried within the church are also some other leading lights – Sir John Doveton, known chiefly for his interest in Sanskrit and his being guardian to the sons of Tippu Sultan while they were held hostage by the British, Sir Archibald Campbell, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army in the 1820s, and Sir Samuel Hood, C-in-C of the Royal Navy.
On the walls of the Church are several commemorative plaques, monuments and medallions. Most of them are in marble and executed by famed 18th/19th Century sculptors in England, such as John Flaxman, John Bacon (senior and junior), G. Clarke, Charles Peart, John Ternouth and Mathew Noble. Some of the striking ones in the church are the memorials to the Rev. C.F. Schwartz (by Bacon Jr), the Rev. C.W. Gericke (by Flaxman), Josiah Webbe (by Flaxman), and Geoffrey Moor house (by Peart). Two lifesize statues, at diametric ends of the church, are those of H H Pepper (by Clarke) and Thomas Conway, “the soldier’s friend” (Ternouth). Both Conway and Moorhouse were ardent Freemasons and among the founding fathers of the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity (PU) in 1789. The PU continues to function in Madras.
Looking around the Church, you realise the high rate of mortality that existed in India and the diverse reasons for it as well. Thus, while the Rev. Gericke was killed by a ‘fright brought about by monkeys’, at Rayacottah Fort in Salem District, Brigadier Malcolm McNeill died of a ‘coup-de-soleil’ (sunstroke) while serving in Pegu, in Burma.

Among the plethora of plaques is one commemorating Julian James Cotton, ics who died in 1927. It is rather appropriate that he has been honoured this way, for he is chiefly remembered today for his painstaking work – List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Madras, first published in 1905. Also remembered is the supposed builder of St. Mary’s, Edward Fowle, Engineer and Gunner, Fort St. George. Though he died in 1685, it was only in 1906 that a brass plaque was unveiled in his memory here. This is set into the first of the six pillars that support the roof of the Church, counting them from the entrance. Facing it, on the western wall is a massive obelisk, which reminds the visitor of the Hynmer and Yale Monument in the Law College compound. This commemorates Lady Hobart (wife of a Governor in the 1700s) and her son.

In the days when St. Mary’s was a garrison church, its pillars were topped by the colours and flags of the various regiments stationed in Madras. Today these have all been removed to the Fort Museum where they remain on display. If you can manage to tear yourself away from the Church, do go out through the southern entrance to the enchanting walled garden. Sit on one of its welcoming benches and look at the walkway that runs along it, parallel to the Church, connecting Charles Street and St. Thomas Street. This is accessed at both ends by wrought iron archways that are securely locked. Could this have been Church Lane or Church Row where one of the Fort’s most sensational romances was played out? More on that in the next episode.

This article is part of a series to commemorate the 375th year of Fort St George. You can read the earlier parts in the links below:

1. The Fort, its Topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gates
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. The Parade Square
8. The Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street
10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
11. Charles (and James) Street
12. St Mary’s Church
13. The Yard of St Mary’s
14. Some treasures of St Mary’s

Hidden histories: The Kohinoor’s predecessors from Madras – The Hindu

November 20, 2015

The Prime Minister’s recent visit to the United Kingdom set off speculations in social media as to whether India would demand the return of the Kohinoor diamond. Forgotten are several gems from Madras now scattered across the world, each with a history.

Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras in the 1680s, is believed to have cheated the King of Siam (now Thailand) of a huge sum of money, on the promise of delivering rubies of high quality. The money was paid but when the stones reached the king, they were found to be inferior. Yale accused the ruler’s agents of substituting the gems he sent with cheap imitations but tongues wagged about the sudden increase in his wealth thereafter. Nobody knows what happened to the originals, if they ever existed.

The bigger, and better-documented story is that of Governor Thomas Pitt’s diamond. In 1700 a labourer in the Golconda mines came upon it and secreted it away in a bandage tied to his leg. What happened to him thereafter is not known but the stone, weighing 426 carats came into the possession of Ramchund, the biggest jeweller of this region. After some bargaining by Pitt, Ramchund sold the diamond to him for 48, 000 pagodas, the rough equivalent of 24,000 pounds sterling. When later asked if he ought not to have purchased it on behalf of the East India Company, Pitt countered by stating that the Directors frowned on trade in precious stones. He had earlier purchased a diamond weighing 58 carats and sent it to England only to have the ship carrying it sink en route. The second purchase was to prove luckier. It was despatched with his son Robert, arriving in England in 1703. But it was not till 1717 that Pitt found time to look for a buyer. The French Government eventually purchased the diamond for 125,000 pounds, the money coming in useful for two later Pitts to become Prime Ministers of England. The diamond, named The Regent, was set in Louis XV’s crown. It had a chequered history thereafter but still remains with the French Government. Another diamond with a French connection was the Orloff, stolen from the Srirangam temple by a deserter from Dupleix’s army, sold to Prince Orloff and finally gifted by him to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

The story of the smaller Pigot diamond is more mysterious. A ‘gift’ from either the Rajah of Tanjore or the Nawab of Arcot (he also sent Queen Charlotte five diamonds known as The Arcots), both of whom had reason to be beholden to Governor Pigot, it was willed to his sisters and brother. Sold to the firm Rundell and Bridge in 1800, it was bought by Ali Pasha, ruler of Albania for 30,000 pounds. He it is said, ordered the diamond to be crushed to pieces at his death, which instruction was faithfully followed. Or was it? There is a theory that it is still at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Source: Hidden histories: The Kohinoor’s predecessors from Madras – The Hindu

Are the rains to blame?

November 19, 2015

The monsoons are giving us of their plenty for a change and the newspapers report that the citizens are already wearying of the rainfall. And yet, for most of the year, we read about and experience acute water shortage for all of which we blame scanty rainfall. Given that Chennai’s monsoon barely lasts a month and is inconsequential when you compare it with rains that cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai receive during their monsoons, why is it that our metro collapses at the first sighting of a cloud?

Historically, ours has been a city that has paid scant attention to its water bodies. The condition of the three principal ones – the Buckingham Canal, the Adyar and the Cooum – is too well known to merit writing about, but our record in terms of tanks and lakes is even worse. In the past, the Government itself was one of the worst offenders. Several planned colonies – T’Nagar, the Lake Area in Nungambakkam and parts of Mambalam – are all built on drained tank beds, as also is a vast part of the industrial area in Padi which came up on what was the Villivakkam Tank. Several decades have gone by since these developments and we cannot put the clock back. We must also take into account the fact that those were times when ideas of environmental protection and water conservation were non-existent.

But have we learnt from our experiences since then? Sadly, no. A study done when the Second Master Plan for Chennai was being finalised a few years ago revealed that between the 1970s and the 1990s, the area of 19 major lakes and tanks in the city had shrunk from 1,130 hectares to 645 hectares. That means a reduction in storage capacity of around 50 per cent. Where does the surplus water go? It floods the surrounding localities, all of which have come up on lake beds. The suburban areas of the city were once blessed with a number of canals and stormwater channels that drained into lakes. With the lakes themselves gone, most of the waterways drain into residential colonies. In certain areas, the channels themselves have been encroached upon.
Building colonies on water bodies has a time-tested pattern in Chennai. It all begins with the dumping of waste and construction debris on the periphery. Shortly thereafter, access routes are laid to these spots so that trucks and carts can make their way to carry on with the land filling activities. This ensures that the lake shrinks in area and also that water channels to it slowly get cut off. Then, people begin putting up makeshift shelters on the banks, with the blessings of local political interests. The lake keeps drying up in the meanwhile and, very soon, someone acquires the place (in name if not in deed), divides the dry bed into plots and sells them off. Chennai has a hoary tradition of ‘eri colonies’, all of which are sudden developments on lakebeds.

The administration watches all this passively, at times even extending electricity and water connections to such settlements. When it rains these places flood and the residents raise a hue and cry. The water, which was once a lifeline, is now blamed for all problems. The administration is arm-twisted into giving compensation for losses suffered. Today, with greater awareness, residents and environment conservationists are keeping a sharp watch on encroachment along lakes and tanks. Some lost water bodies have even been recovered in the teeth of opposition from vested interests. But all this is too little, too late. Unless the administration wakes up and nips attempts to take over water bodies at the very start, we will continue to be inundated when it rains and be short of water when it shines.

This article was written before the great flood. Happenings since then have not necessitated any change in the contents.

Some young talents to hear this December

November 18, 2015

Aarthi & Archana

Akshay Padmanabhan

Amrita Murali

Amruta Venkatesh

Ashwath Narayanan

Bharat Sundar

Brinda Manickavasagam

JA Jayanth

Ramakrishnan Murthy

Sandeep Narayan

Sriranjani Santhanagopalan

Vivek Sadasivam


In the wake of floods, some Chennai areas to be renamed

November 15, 2015

Chennai – Chennapunji/ Sinkapur

Mylapore – Mazhai Pour

Kodambakkam – Kodai Pakkam

Porur – Pour ur

Velacheri – VeLLa cheri

Alwarpet – All water pet

Kotturpuram – Boater puram

Royapettah – River pettah

Boat Club – Boat Club

Doveton – Drowned down

Jaffarkhanpet – Jal under pet

Thiyagaraya Nagar – Tidewater Nagar

Tidel Park – Tidal Park

Todhunter Nagar – Torrential Nagar

Marina Beach – Maroona Beach

Vepery – Washery

Washermanpet – Waterfall pet

George Town – Gorge Town

Alandur – All Under

Siruseri – Sirf Eri

Kilpauk – Keele Par

Adyar – All Aar

Sowcarpet – Sewerpet

Triplicane – Triple Rain

Mandaveli – Man deep well

Meenambakkam – Meen Ellam Paakkalaam

Nungambakkam – Nanguram

Nunganallur – Nunguranallur

Oorapakkam – Oorina Pakkam

Koyambedu – Kulam Pondu

Valasaravakkam – veLLa Seru vakkam

Madambakkam – Maha Dam Pakkam

Maraimalai Nagar – Mazhai Mazhai Nagar

KK Nagar – KuLam kuTTai Nagar

Vyasarpadi – Waterspadi

Padi – Puddly

Metro Rail threatens Ripon Buildings

November 13, 2015

Ripon Building

Two churches in Broadway, several houses along the way, the Law College buildings, a couple of heritage structures on Mount Road… the list of victims of the Metrorail is long and rather illustrious. The latest to join this select club is Ripon Building, the 102-year-old heritage structure that is home to the Corporation of Chennai.

The story has been the same in all cases. As the drilling works progress, old buildings along the way develop cracks. The residents are alarmed, the newspapers report the matter, the structures are evacuated, a team from Chennai Metrorail visits the site and then claims it is not responsible for the damage, IIT Madras is called in to submit a report that is never made public, the cracks are given a temporary fix and then the drilling continues to progress. Surely by now, with such a pattern emerging, the authorities should know that some precautionary steps need to be taken when tunnelling for the Metro happens – at least in the vicinity of a heritage building.

The experience with Ripon Building has been no different. Even as drilling, tunnelling and excavating happen in its vici­nity, the edifice has begun ­developing cracks. These were first reported a month ago and since then they have continued to widen. It must be remembered that the entire structure rests on a series of terracotta wells for its foundation, all of them filled with stone rubble (Jalli). If these are disturbed by the work in progress, such cracks are bound to happen.

A team from Metrorail has since visited the place and IIT Madras has been asked to prepare a report. This has probably been submitted but has not been made available to the ­Corporation, which therefore remains in the dark as to what has caused the fissures and what needs to be done next. In the meanwhile, the cracks have caused much fear and excitement among the staff in the premises, with the ensuing discussions presumably resulting in less work happening at the civic body’s office than usual.

It will be laughable if Metro­rail claims that the Ripon Building cracks are not due to the ongoing tunnelling work. The edifice is still in the midst of a Rs 27 Crore restoration activity that has been ongoing for over five years now. If there was indeed a different cause for the damage that has now surfaced, surely the team of architects and conservation experts in attendance would have noticed it and ­reported it by now. The res­ponsibility for the latest issue is clearly with Chennai Metro and it needs to do something.

What is amazing is the sheer lack of concern and the unwillingness to arrive at a lasting solution for this problem despite such a track record.
Added to this is the sheer lack of transparency in the process of finding a solution, assuming that there is such an effort. What is currently in place is surely merely a cover up operation with, no doubt, the hope that people will forget the issue after a while. And then, there is always the winning argument – such losses have to be sustained in the name of development and progress.

Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency within the Corporation itself. With a spanking new annexe having been completed, most of the ­offices have probably shifted there or will soon do so. This will result in Ripon Building being left as it is, and the pressure to do anything quick will diminish. The home of the oldest Corporation in India will join a long list of public buildings that are now deemed structurally unsafe.

Our airport among Asia’s worst

November 12, 2015
Is the Nataraja going to help?

Is the Nataraja going to help?

Barely a year after we patted ourselves on the back for being the only Indian city to be named among 52 favoured travel destinations by the New York Times, and just a month after the success of the Global Investors Meet, our city is faced with a dubious first. Its airport has been rated among Asia’s worst. And that may not be surprising to those who have to frequently use the facility.

The survey, conducted by the travel website, ‘The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,’ talked to over 26,000 passengers ­during the course of one year, beginning from September 2014. Chennai’s terminal, in faring poorly does not have the consolation it did a few years ago when the same survey also included Mumbai and Delhi’s airports among the worst. Those have since invested heavily in improvements and in the latest poll have been ranked among the best in Asia. Not surprisingly, the Airports Authority of India, which manages Chen­nai’s airport, has strongly disagreed with the survey. It has in fact given the facility a rating of 4.3 out of 5. In its ranking, based on the Airports Council International’s Airport Survey, Chennai has moved in one year from 114th position to 56th.

To what benefit are such self-congratulatory messages?

To what benefit are such self-congratulatory messages?

The general public does not agree with the latter rating. The travel website’s study reveals that our airport scored very badly in baggage handling facilities and toilets. In the case of the former, the slowness in baggage delivery, the creaking carousels and the poor condition of trolleys have all come in for flak. The toilets have also been roundly condemned for being smelly and poorly kept. Though the survey does not mention it, the airport has also had several other issues – notably the falling of false ceiling panels and the cracking of glass panes. All this makes you wonder how on earth Chennai can claim to be a city of international standards.
From having been in 1948 the first city in India to have a civil airport (the rest were all military bases), Chennai has fallen behind quite a bit.

The problems have been accumulating over the years, beginning with controversy over the second runway that necessitated acquisition of land. This saw protests from the residential colonies in the neighbourhood. Thus there has been very little scope for expansion making the airport increasingly congested even as the number of flights and passengers has kept rising. Also, while airports in cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad modernised through privatisation, Chennai airport’s revamp was entrusted to the Airports Authority of India, which rather predictably completed the job in a fashion that pleased none. Comparisons with other airports have been inevitable with Chennai always coming the worse off. For years there has been talk of a new airport to be constructed at a green field site but this never got off the ground. It is interesting to note that plans for new airports began simultaneously for Bangalore and Chennai and while the former’s facility has been in operation for almost ten years now, the latter is yet to take off.

The latest is that the Airports Authority is planning to spend a further Rs 1400 Crores on Chennai airport but if this is to achieve anything significant, the benchmarks have to be international and not the AAI’s own. Another step has been the announcement that the maintenance of the airport will now be privatised. This has been in response to the survey. But will this step in the right direction really suffice? Or is it time to once again look at a new airport facility?

Related stories:

Airport abominations

How international is our airport?


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