It is now more than two years since the Hon’ble High Court of Madras decreed that a certain number of listed buildings cannot be demolished. It then asked the Government to set up a committee to study the list, add to it if needed and, most importantly, draft a set of heritage legislations to protect and restore these buildings. Since then, however, there has been no action forthcoming from this committee and this has left the property owners to interpret to undertake protection of heritage buildings in their own ways. It is no exaggeration to state that most of them are only looking at creative ways to circumvent the Court directive.
The majority are happy not to demolish their buildings, but they take no steps to preserve or protect them. They are secure in the knowledge that real estate appreciates any way and so all they have to do is simply wait for the buildings to collapse on their own. The owners are not in any way committed to restoring these buildings. The initial (and only) letter sent out by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) has aided these people, for while it clearly states what cannot and should not be done with the heritage structures, it is completely silent on what can and must be done. It is, in other words, a classic example of Government-speak.
There is another category which is also completely hemmed in by the same letter. This pertains to a small group of owners who are eager to take up restoration work but have no idea as to what can be done and do not want to end up on the wrong side of the law. An example of this is the Trust that owns the Madrasa-e-Azam property. Trustees have gone on record that they are eager to restore the building if only advised on how to go about it. But with the HCC silent on this, they don’t know what to do other than watch their beloved edifice crumble.
A third group has chosen to interpret the ruling in a different way. Members of this group are approaching the HCC with assurances that they intend to build an entirely new structure, on the same pattern and design as the old building. This is a laughable idea at most. If the idea is to rebuild to the same design, why not restore the existing structure and make modifications to the interior to suit modern requirements? And if the construction involves doing away with the old building, what is left of heritage even if the new structure is on the same lines? In any case, such promises are only made with an intention to delude the heritage activists. In the past, when Bentinck’s Building was demolished and Spencer’s burned down, assurances were given that the new buildings would be on the same lines. What was put up is available for all to see and it is for each to decide on how the promise was honoured.
The HCC thankfully saw through the LIC’s plans when it presented a scheme to remodel the Bharat Insurance Building with similar assurances. But it may not be so firm when it comes to other buildings, whose owners have approached the HCC with similar plans. Certainly, the rather self-congratulatory statements that came forth from the HCC in the instance of the new Bible Society Building does not make us feel confident. The Society demolished its heritage structure and the HCC was left with no choice but to approve the new design which, on the basis of an arched façade, claims to be on the lines of the earlier structure. The only aspect on which the HCC had its way was to limit the height of the building to that of the neighbouring Memorial Hall. We should probably have to be thankful for that.
There is one last variety. Chiefly comprising religious establishments (barring the Bible Society, we guess), this group is going ahead with whatever it feels is right. It is cashing in on the probably correct surmise that the Government will do nothing to fan religious passions by interfering.
All this can be avoided if the HCC focusses on its mandate of drafting heritage laws quickly and recommending them to the Government. With a Bill already pending on the same subject, the suggestions can surely be added and legislated upon if only the Government had the will. That way, we can save our heritage in reality rather than pay lip service to the cause.