They say lightning never strikes twice. But in our city, fires certainly do. The Government Press, which is housed in the buildings of the erstwhile Mint on the eponymous street, had a fire within six months of two earlier ones. The most recent and most serious blaze of them all destroyed what the first two had not. The buildings had to be demolished. Thanks to poor maintenance, shoddy electrical wiring and an appalling sense of housekeeping, another one of the heritage structures of the city fell victim to what was very much an avoidable tragedy.
But that is not the view of officialdom which moved ahead with unseemly speed to flatten what was left, speed that could have been shown in restoration which, if done, could have obviated the causes for the fire accident. Even now it is reliably understood that the fire is seen as a blessing in disguise, for it has ensured that an inconvenient heritage structure that nobody wanted is out of the way and plans can go ahead for a modern structure.
What is not being looked into is the background to the fire. The earlier incidents, both of which occurred within a week of each other, were caused by electric short circuits. The fire services chief made a statement that the building that was burnt had faulty wiring. The Press staff claimed that the wiring was old because the building was old! Now where does it state that an old building should not upgrade its electrical cabling to prevent short circuits?
This time round, the fire was caused by newly installed electrical equipment, which only goes to show what quality can be expected in our State-run institutions. As luck would have it, the recent fire, unlike the earlier ones, broke out at night and was not detected quickly. By the time the fire services were called, it was too late. With reportedly heavy stock of paper in the premises, the fire spread quickly and burnt the supporting columns, most of them being wooden. With the building listing to one side, demolition was the only solution.
The Government had announced after the first fires that it was sanctioning the construction of a 4000 sq ft building on the site. With the more recent fire, the planned building can be even bigger. But at what a big loss of heritage! The building has been in existence since the 18th Century, first as a gunpowder 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 by the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report on heritage structures and precincts as qualified for Grade I importance.
The Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) of the CMDA has chosen to remain silent on the fire. Shortly after its inception, it had received a proposal for the demolition of the Mint and the construction of modern highrise in its place. The Committee had then refused to sanction the plan. Now the new construction has become a fait accompli.
It would appear that none in authority is willing to learn from repeated incidents of fires in heritage properties. Chennai’s list of victims is long – Spencer’s, Moore Market, Gandhi Illam, the GPO, Chepauk Palace and now the Mint – and hardly an edifying record. But yet we find that many old buildings are easy targets for fire accidents – plenty of old timber, faulty electric wiring and loads of flammable rubbish, making for a deadly combination. Such apathy does not bode well for the remaining heritage properties.