The Metro Rail project is on a fast track and has rightfully earned plaudits for the speedy execution that is underway. Unfortunately, in doing so, it is exacting a heavy price on the city’s heritage. In the past we have had occasion to highlight the potential for damage to historic structures as drilling and other work continues in their proximity. Now, for the first time, Metro Rail has completely demolished a heritage building in full – one of the structures in the Government Teachers’ Training College campus, Saidapet.
The two-storeyed structure, to an unusual semi-circular plan, with arched windows right along its periphery, was reminiscent of the Ice House in several ways. It was part of the more than 150-year-old campus and was easily its most visible building as it was closest to the road. Chennai Metro Rail has claimed that this is not a heritage structure as it is not listed specifically in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report. It therefore asserts that the demolition did not need permission of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) which was formed by the Government and undertook to protect the buildings listed by the Padmanabhan Committee.
That this is not a correct interpretation of the High Court’s ruling will be made clear to anyone who reads the Padmanabhan Committee report. Listed in page 653, the notings cover the entire campus. The report has it that the buildings (note the plural) are of the British period and “located within a campus. Few buildings are maintained fairly, while one is in serious deterioration.” The last named is a building with a spire and now houses the Mother Teresa University. Ironically, the structure that has been demolished is one that was in a good condition and which had been recently restored after a fashion by the PWD. The Padmanabhan Committee had also considered this campus to be of Grade 1 importance which meant it is a stretch, complex or area of State or National importance… “They are characterised by their size, length or number of buildings that form a group – which is usually large; with special architectural character or features; and of a certain position in history which assigns them that importance.” By its very ranking, it is clear that the Teachers’ College campus was considered as a whole and Metro Rail had no business to selectively decide which buildings could be demolished.
The deed has been done. But what we are left wondering about is the complete silence of the HCC and its parent body, the CMDA, both of which were mandated by the High Court to protect heritage buildings. In fact, the arguments that we have presented above ought to have been put forward by the HCC so that the demolition could have been prevented.
But it is a well-known fact that this body chooses to remain silent on most matters and has, at most, stirred itself only to give approvals for demolition.
In this context, it is worthwhile quoting from the Padmanabhan Committee report. “The committee with heavy heart points out that neither the public nor the administration nor the authorities are conscious of the value of maintaining the heritage buildings, places of historic importance or aesthetic value and popular places of worship, which is a disappointment. All of them will have to be educated and informed of the values of such historical and monumental buildings. The administration has to change its attitude on these aspects, by appropriate and stringent measures. The committee members are also pained to note that several heritage and ancient buildings have been brought down by the public as well as the authorities and they continue unabated.”
Sage words indeed, which unfortunately have fallen on deaf ears.