Around 4000 sq ft of built area was gutted by a fire at the historic Government Press on Mint Street. The damage could have been much worse had it not been for the serendipitous fact that the fire broke out during working hours and so was detected and put out quickly. What is most distressing is that those involved in the entire fire-fighting operation and the press releases that followed accused the heritage building of being the villain of the piece, making it out to be the cause of the fire!
The building has been in existence since the 18th Century, first as a power mill and later as a mint where the East India Company struck coins for the Nawabs of Arcot. It was later made over to the Government Press, which has been in operation here for a long period of time. The precinct, for it houses several buildings, has been listed as being of Grade 1 importance by the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report on heritage structures and precincts.
The fire, it has been said, was due to an electric short circuit. The fire services chief has made a statement that the building that was burnt had faulty wiring. The Press staff claim that the wiring is old because the building is old! Now where does it state that an old building should not upgrade its electrical cabling to prevent short circuits? Considering that Chennai has so far seen five heritage buildings either partially or fully gutted (Moore Market, Spencers, Gandhi Illam, GPO and Chepauk Palace), all of them due to electric short circuits, surely we ought to have learnt our lesson by now.
But that is not the case, as was evident in the present instance. The godown that caught fire was stacked with unwanted paper and scrap which, combined with faulty wiring, made for a tinderbox that was in search of a lighted match. An argument against this can be that a press will naturally have waste paper. But then should not such a facility also naturally take suitable precautions to prevent fires? Apparently not, for within days of the above-mentioned fire, a smaller one broke out at the same location.
The statement by the Government that a new building to replace the old facility of 4000 sq ft would be constructed has been greatly welcomed. The old structure caved in during the fire-fighting operations. Those in charge of the Press say that most of the structures in the premises are old and so this kind of an accident is bound to happen. Unfortunately that is not a tenable statement, as there are several heritage buildings the world over which are being put to good use and survive, thanks to good maintenance and protection.
This awareness is sadly lacking in our city where officialdom sometimes appears most happy when there are fires of this kind as it gives them an opportunity to do away with the old and replace it with an incongruous new. We have in the past reported on how the Government was toying with the idea of demolishing the Press and replacing it with modern highrise. It is only the Justice Padmanabhan Committee listing that has prevented this. But when disasters such as fire strike, they become a heaven-sent opportunity to sweep away old structures. Thankfully, the fire was restricted to one building in the Press. But there is no doubt that its replacement will be a PWD creation, completely out of place with what is surrounding it, thereby irretrievably damaging the fabric of the heritage precinct.