With work beginning this week on Chennai’s metro rail project the fate of St Andrews Kirk, one of the city’s landmark buildings and hailed as a feat in engineering, hangs in the balance. A portion of the underground corridor of the metro along Poonamallee High Road will run under the church land and within 25 metres of the church building itself. Can the church withstand the rigours of the construction work and also the sustained vibrations caused by rolling stock once the rail comes into operation?
Representatives of the church had attended public briefing sessions even in 2008 when the project was announced and the route was planned along Poonamallee High Road. At that time they were assured that the underground corridor would run beneath the road and so the church would not be affected. Later they came to know that the proposed route would run beneath the church land and close to the building itself.
Mr John Rajanayagam, Secretary of the Church says that the church immediately contacted Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL), the company that is entrusted with the project. They were informed that CMRL was taking the help of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) when it came to heritage buildings along the route and that the general practice would be that no construction would take place within 100 m of such buildings. It was only later that members of the church realised that theirs was a building that does not come under the ASI’s purview as theirs is not an ancient monument. The absence of a Heritage Act in the city meant that buildings such as St Andrews are not protected by any legislation.
Letters were immediately dispatched to the Chairman and Managing Director of CMRL explaining the necessity to protect the church. A reply was received that the matter would receive attention once the consultants for the project Egis Rail SA of France come down in a couple of months time to advise on the project. Matters rest there for now.
Others concerned with the welfare of heritage buildings in the city have also approached the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) which is represented in CMRL through its Member Secretary. The CMDA was completely unaware of such a threat to the church building.
Consecrated in 1821, St Andrews was and is praised a feat of engineering as de Havilland, the engineer overcame the problem of subsidence in the area by sinking terracotta wells on which the church structure rests. These will be severely affected by the vibrations during any tunneling activity in the vicinity and the structural stability of the church will be threatened. The building which showed signs of wear and tear was renovated and strengthened a few years ago by a team comprising structural engineers from IIT led by Mr PC Verghese with advise from Karslruhe University, Germany. The team had studied the church and its design thoroughly and would be ideally positioned to help in situations such as this.
The CMRL’s web site http://www.chennaimetrorail.gov.in/index.html has a statement claiming that alignments and stations are tentative at present and subject to change during the actual execution. It is to be hoped that better sense will prevail when it comes to St Andrews. It is absolutely necessary that projects such as metro rail takes into account the effect they will have on stakeholders and any decision on this church and its ability to withstand construction in its vicinity must be taken only after consultation with the engineers who worked on its restoration.