The recent collapse of Last House on Snob’s Alley in Fort St. George has only exposed the outdated way of functioning of the Archaeological Survey of India. It would appear that this so-called custodian of ancient monuments is now functioning in a manner that is in contravention of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, which mandates that the ASI ‘administers and maintains’ any ancient building under its purview. That the ASI, far from doing so, has only been neglecting structures such as the Last House is more than evident from the manner in which the building deteriorated in less than a decade. Certainly if this is any indication, it is high time the ASI is given a new direction and a new definition for functioning, with better accountability.
Last House on Snob’s Alley was until the 1990s, a seemingly healthy structure. I have had occasion to repeatedly visit the place when the entire area was free of vegetation. You could walk around the building and thereby gain access to the front walls of Fort St. George. And then, sometime in the last decade or so, the building began to show rapid signs of decay. It was denied even the most basic maintenance and gradually it lost its balcony, and all of its windows and doors. As to what happened to these is a mystery. A mute witness to all this depredation was the ASI’s blue board, which if the organization is to be believed, is a charm that protects from all hazards the buildings and structures by the side of which it is placed. No other maintenance work is deemed necessary.
By January 2019, the building was clearly on its way out. An investigative feature by DT Next revealed that between 2014 and 2018 it had been sanctioned Rs 1.08 L (or around Rs 20,000 per year) for maintenance and that a Director of the ASI had declared that it could not be restored and recommended that it be removed from the list of protected monuments. Is that all that it takes for a building to be delisted? What about accountability for the years of neglect that brought it to a condition beyond restoration? And was it really beyond restoration? Who had scientifically done a study to declare this? What of the ASI’s famed reputation in the past for painstaking restoration?
Unverified reports have it that the ASI was in the process of requesting funds for restoration of the place – once again there is no transparency about the veracity of such requests. These things take time said one official on social media – clearly so much of time that the building made things easy by collapsing in the meanwhile. The ASI can now close this file and go back to maintaining its head office in the Fort, which seems to be the only structure that it is interested in. Just a few hundred metres away is Wellesely’s House, also a ‘protected monument’ that is a collapsed ruin for over twenty years. How much longer does the ASI need to push files to get funds for restoration?
News reports of the collapse of Last House immediately brought forth the neo-nationalists who asked about the necessity of protecting a colonial edifice ‘when so many temples are in ruins.’ What is forgotten is that someone in their wisdom had made this a protected monument years ago and therefore it was the ASI’s duty to protect it. And an organization that today at the whim of a Director can ask for a building to be delisted can tomorrow do the same for any temple as well.
It is high time the Government of India transformed the ASI from a paper-pushing department to a dynamic entity that really fulfils its mandate. Else we will have precious little to show by way of our heritage – colonial or otherwise.
My book, Chennai A Biography is out – get it on Amazon https://www.amazon.in/CHENNAI-BIOGRAPHY-V-Sriram/dp/9390652987 or from any bookstore.