It may come as a revelation of sorts to many of our readers that our State does have a Heritage Commission Act. Certainly, we were taken by surprise when a casual perusal of the Government of Tamil Nadu’s website (http://www.stationeryprinting. tn.gov.in/extraordinary/2012/145-Ex-IV-2.pdf) revealed the existence of such an Act. Known as the Tamil Nadu Heritage Commission Act of 2012, it is Act 24 of that year and, having been passed by the Legislative Assembly, it received the Governor’s consent on May 31, 2012. It has since remained on paper.
Conceptually, it is a step in the right direction and is on the lines of what conservationists have been asking for. It recognises the fact that there are several historic buildings in the State outside the purview of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Acts of the Centre (enacted in 1958) and the State (1966). It specifically aims to establish a “Statutory Authority to advise in the matters relating to identification, restoration and preservation of heritage buildings and in the matters relating to the development and engineering operations which are likely to affect any heritage building.” It then goes on to create a Heritage Commission, which will fulfil these responsibilities.
All perfect thus far. But, thereafter, the proposed Commission has an identical composition as the existing but largely inactive Heritage Conservation Committee of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). Out of 16 members, 15 are Government nominees and one solitary representative, speaking for non-governmental interests, will be from INTACH. The functions of the Commission have been detailed in the Act. And these too are more or less identical to those of the CMDA’s HCC. The fundamental difference is that the proposed HCC will cover the entire State while the current one has Chennai alone under its jurisdiction. Given that the existing body has done nothing, largely owing to its bureaucratic set-up, it is quite likely that the planned entity may have a similar track record.
But what is even more surprising is that the Act has remained on paper for more than a year. It is reliably learnt that the Government is unable to make up its mind on the nominees and that a file with suggested names is pending with the authorities. The Act has already created considerable confusion in Government circles with the status of the functioning (if it can qualify as that) HCC becoming unclear in view of the newly planned body.
Whatever be the merits and demerits of its composition and the statutes governing it, the new HCC has to be given flesh and blood by the Government immediately. There are scores of heritage structures all over the State that need immediate attention.
It was only a few weeks ago that there were reports of demolition of a part of the historic Mangammal Palace in Madurai. Within Chennai, there are many endangered buildings – Gokhale Hall, the Madrasa-e-Azam and the Bharat Insurance Building being a few.
Perhaps the worst casualty is Chepauk Palace, one wing of which burnt down in January 2012. It is understood that Government was moved to legislate this Act only after that fire. But, sadly, with no subsequent action, Chepauk Palace has suffered a worse damage when a part of its roof in the other wing collapsed last month. The Government needs to wake up to the loss of heritage in its own backyard and take immediate steps to make the proposed Heritage Conservation Commission a thriving and dynamic body. Only then will the heritage structures of our State have any hope of survival in the long term.