It is only in this, our land that such things can happen. When a Rs. 1800 crore spanking new Secretariat building is languishing and may turn into a hospital at any moment, the Government is choosing to renovate a monstrosity set in a heritage precinct, on the basis that it needs a suitable structure to function from. And what is even more questionable is the way various Government agencies and departments have bent over backwards to ensure that the idea passed muster.
Namakkal Kavignar Maligai is the ten-storeyed office block that sticks out like a sore thumb from the middle of Fort St George, which is a precinct that in any light ought to be a World Heritage Site. This structure, built in the best PWD tradition in the 1970s to house Government’s departments, was one of the egregious sights of the city. And even allowing for the fact that those were less heritage-conscious days, it was a building that should have never been constructed in the Fort. What is worse is that two notified structures were denotified and demolished to make way for the building. One among those that were done away with was probably the home of the earliest church built in the city.
Poorly designed and executed, the building was shoddily maintained and within 15 years of its construction it needed major repairs. A few years ago it was given a further facelift by way of a new façade, which for some reason was interpreted to be Chola in inspiration. This apparently is now the basis on which the Archaeological Survey of India and the Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA have given their approval for its restoration.
The building, it is understood, has been labelled as an example of early modern construction in the city and, therefore, worthy of preservation. And this has been blessed by the ASI and the HCC, neither of which, it is necessary to point out, has any jurisdiction over the building. If the ASI had gone by the rule book, such a building could have never been allowed to be built inside the Fort and if the HCC did not behave like a handmaiden of the CMDA, it ought to know that this building is not a heritage structure by any yardstick.
As a consequence of this quick approval process, Rs. 28 crore is to be spent on the building. And this while a complete heritage precinct, almost four centuries old, is crying for restoration – we allude to Fort St George. If the Government was strapped for space it ought to have moved its departments to the new Secretariat.
In this connection, it should be pointed out that the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Chennai Chapter, has observed that the building had no place in the heritage precinct that the Fort is and, therefore, ought to be demolished at once as it completely dwarfs the most important structure of the State – the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. It is also reliably learnt that this view of INTACH has not won it friends in the Government. But, then, not everybody wins friends easily.