Historic Gokhale Hall gets reprieve


          High Court stays demolition


The ninety-four year old Gokhale Hall, witness to many historic events of our city and nation, may have a future other than demolition. The High Court of Madras, based on public interest litigation by a member of the Young Men’s Indian Association, granted a stay on the demolition of the building, further to its interim order of a few weeks ago.


In a significant move, which may have a bearing on future attempts to demolish other heritage structures, the Court also ordered the examination of the possibility of “whether the building can be preserved as part of the heritage and culture of not only Tamil Nadu but the whole nation”. This assumes importance in the light of the fact that in the absence of a Heritage Act in the state, earlier judgements on similar issues (such as Bharat Insurance Buildings) have restricted themselves to prevention of demolition and not examined the possibility of restoration. The Gokhale Hall case has more or less taken the same direction as the case involving the demolition of the Director-General of Police building on the Marina. Then too, the Court had ordered the examination of whether the building could be preserved, with happy results.


Passing orders on the stay, the first bench of the High Court stated that all attempts to demolish the building on Armenian Street should be stopped and not carried out till further orders. The court ordered the Tamil Nadu chapter of INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage) to visit the place and make a detailed survey of the building and whether it could be repaired.


The court also took cognizance of the fact that earlier, part of the structure was demolished in a hurry even while the interim stay was granted. It has asked INTACH to examine whether the portion which has been demolished can be re-constructed in tune with the original structure. The INTACH, it has said, will take the assistance of Mr S Muthiah and file its report in a sealed cover within three weeks.


The Court also came down heavily on the Government and has questioned as to how the demolition of such a historic structure was permitted. It has also asked the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority to clarify its stand on heritage buildings.


All these developments only go to highlight the crying need for a Heritage Act in the city and the state. As background to such an act, INTACH has already listed out the heritage buildings in the city and the report has been gathering dust in some government department for over two years now. The draft Heritage Act, also worked out by INTACH has met with the same fate. It remains to be seen whether the latest orders of the Court have any impact on this.


The recent trend of the High Court appointing independent and neutral experts to study aspects of heritage and culture prior to any action is something the Government could do well to emulate. An earlier instance has been the case pertaining to illegal advertisement hoardings where a similar committee filed a report on heritage (built and natural) spots in the city where such billboards ought not to be located.