This article has become almost an anniversary piece, given that it is exactly four years since the High Court of Madras mandated that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority sets up a Heritage Conservation Committee to formulate policies for the protection of heritage buildings. Since then, the HCC has moved, for, to be fair it has not been idle, but it has achieved very little. And what is worse, it has created more confusion in its wake than existed before. But that is only to be expected from a body largely peopled by bureaucrats and academicians from Government controlled educational institutions.
There is the matter of listing and notifying heritage buildings. When it was first set up, the HCC took the list of around 400 heritage structures put together by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee and sent letters to each of the owners stating that they could not demolish (or for that matter do anything else) their property. A couple of years later, it began making a list once again and sent out letters to some of the owners listed in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report informing them that it was contemplating inclusion of their properties in a heritage list and asked if they had any objections. This was sent to only about 70 owners. Since the letter did not specify as to what were the benefits or pain points caused by listing their property as a heritage structure, most owners have kept quiet, not knowing what to reply. In the meanwhile, those of the original 400 who received the first letter but not the second are still awaiting instructions on what can be done with their buildings.
Some of those who had urgent construction requirements – extensions, alterations and repairs, or even new buildings – in a heritage precinct, have approached the HCC for permission. It is in this aspect that the HCC has redeemed itself somewhat, for it has studied the plans carefully and in many cases withheld permission. In other instances, the go-ahead has been given with some suggested alterations to ensure harmony with neighbouring structures. Thereafter, the HCC has failed once again, for it has not monitored the new constructions or alterations carried out after its permission, so as to check if the owners have deviated from the approved plan (and many have). This is, of course, a common failing with the CMDA and its monitoring agency, the Corporation of Chennai. Both are known to agonise and dither over plan permissions but once these are granted, they never monitor the actual construction, which is why there are so many plan violations in the city. The HCC, being a creation of the CMDA, is not different from its parent.
Lastly, the HCC is nowhere near formulating a policy for heritage conservation. All across the city there are owners of small heritage houses and office spaces who would gladly preserve what they have if only there was a clear-cut directive, together with some incentives and, perhaps, some financial assistance. This is not coming forth. It is an indication of how much our civic bodies have slipped when you consider that, over eighty years ago, the Corporation embarked on just such a novel scheme to have residents install latrines with flushes inside their houses. Finding that several would like to have them fitted but lacked money, the Corporation came forward to assist, doing the needful by way of installation and collecting the payment over a set of monthly instalments. It is not clear as to why such a scheme cannot be thought out for heritage buildings as well.
What is really lacking is out-of-the-box thinking. If the HCC is going to remain the way it is, there is very little that can be achieved. And we will keep losing out on heritage.