The lifting of a stay by the Hon’ble High Court of Madras on the demolition of a 164-year-old church in Coimbatore has paved the way for new construction. This may be the right moment to look at what protection is there for structures that do not come under the classification of ancient monuments.
Let us face it, there really is no legal protection for structures that are not already under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India. India has no State where a comprehensive Heritage Act exists, which enables the listing of relatively recent heritage and ensures the care of such structures. This means that most buildings in the country that are less than 500 years old are open to alteration and, worse, demolition.
Tamil Nadu is no exception to the rule. As and when the demolition of any such structure is challenged before the Courts, there is no statute on the basis of which protection can be given and, consequently, permission for demolition is usually the end-result. It is only in the rarest of the rare cases that the cause of preservation and restoration has been upheld.
Unfortunately, those who own such properties are not aware of the heritage in their possession and often consider it to be a hindrance to progress. In the instance of the Coimbatore church, the diocese has claimed that the structure was too weak to withstand the vagaries of nature. This is completely contrary to heritage conservation principles which state that no structure that is standing is beyond restoration. Unfortunately, most of the modern architects who should know better, do not abide by this tenet.
In this particular instance, the Commissioner for Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, was asked by the Court to give a considered view on the church. The opinion given was that “though the church is more than 100-years-old, it has no sculptures, inscriptions or any unique artistic interest, and the church had undergone repairs, alterations, additions, and extensions number of times with modern materials.”
It is on this opinion that we have much to say. If we are to go by this, most buildings that we would consider to be of heritage value would have to be demolished. Yet, the very age of the building would make it qualify for protection, as it represents an era that has gone by. Secondly, does every structure that merits protection need to necessarily have sculptures, inscriptions or unique artistic interest? Surely there are structures of far more recent vintage that have been protected. What of the 10-storey Namakkal Kavignar Maligai in Fort St George? Or the twin arches outside Anna Nagar? Lastly, if the usage of modern materials in an old building removes its heritage tag, most of our temples would be prime candidates. And what of structures such as the residence of Subramania Bharathi in Triplicane which, though thoroughly modernised by later owners, was acquired by the State Government, restored somewhat to its original façade and is now protected?
We do not hold a brief for the church in question either for or against the demolition. The Court has ruled and the diocese has acted accordingly. But, this sets a precedent on the basis of which cases for and against demolition may be argued in future. There is, therefore, an urgent need for a debate on what constitutes heritage. Similarly, there is immediate necessity for the passing of a Heritage Act for the entire State of Tamil Nadu. This should be followed up with a listing of heritage structures across the State, grading them on the basis of their importance and affording them protection on that basis. There are well-established norms for this and we do not have to re-invent the wheel.