The CMDA and its Heritage Conservation Committee have finally spoken on heritage. Three years after the HCC was set up for the purpose of going into the list of 400-and-odd buildings that were ordered by the High Court of Madras to be listed under heritage status, it has announced that it is finalising a list of 70 buildings that may merit consideration for protection. Conservation and preservation are a long way off, as this list is now to go through a long process of public debate and may undergo changes. It is all too little and too late.
There have been listings of heritage buildings in Madras, going back to the 1990s. INTACH, a body that is now, it would appear, persona non grata with the Government, had compiled the first listing and had submitted it with detailed documents to the Government. This was duly filed after vague promises. Much water has since then flown down the Cooum and the latest list was the one put together by the Justice Padmanabhan Committee in connection with large outdoor hoardings and had around 460 buildings. That list was the enumeration that Justice Prabha Sridevan used in her landmark judgement concerning Bharat Insurance Building as a consequence of which the HCC was formed. The Committee was given the mandate to go through the list, decide on whether gradings suggested by the Justice Padmanabhan Committee were acceptable to it and then offer guidelines for protecting the buildings.
However, the HCC had for reasons best known to itself set about making another list. At the end of three years, it has now decided that 70 buildings may be worthy of protection. As to the methodology used for the enumeration and what the considerations were for including a building in the list, the HCC is silent. The contents of the list are yet to be made public but it is understood that it comprises around 42 public buildings. This in a city that as per independent lists has more than 400 heritage structures!
The story does not end here for heritage structures. The CMDA plans to follow a time-consuming process of public consultation during which it plans to invite the owners of the buildings and explain the heritage value of the structures in their possession. It will record their assent/objections, if any, and then forward its recommendations to the State Government, which will then notify the final list of buildings as having heritage status. Given the way things have moved on heritage thus far, all this is likely to take forever. And, above all, there is not even a mention of a Heritage Act, the creation of which was one of the mandates for the HCC.
If you are to go by newspaper reports, the Government does not plan to extend any financial help to owners of heritage properties for conservation and restoration. The onus is entirely on the property owners and they will be forbidden to demolish the buildings or modify them in any way. Then there follows a line which states that the Government will have a fund for heritage buildings and extend it to owners who cannot afford to maintain their premises. These are steps that are hardly likely to enthuse any heritage property owner to maintain the structure in his/her possession. The HCC needs to come out with positive ways in which people can maintain heritage and that is not being done.
Peopled as it is by Government representatives, the HCC is not functioning in any way close to bodies of a similar nature in other countries. Private owners of heritage properties need to be roped in and made to participate in its working. That will transform it from a rule-bound slow-moving body into a more dynamic one. Given the way heritage buildings are being demolished or allowed to fall apart owing to plain neglect, it is unlikely that any of them will be left standing by the time the last steps to a notification are taken.