The recent directive of the Madras High Court that the State Government ought to set up a heritage conservation committee within three months to protect heritage buildings in the state has come as a shot in the arm for those who have campaigned long and hard for this. But in the euphoria that has followed this announcement, it cannot be forgotten that the Government has in the past made several half-hearted attempts in this direction only to lose steam midway. Will the latest directive therefore make any difference to the way governments of all political hues view heritage?

Fourteen years ago, a consultation initiated by the Town and Country Planning Department resulting in a Heritage Act draft, along the guidelines suggested by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Subsequently, it was felt that this ought to come under the purview of the local authorities and the same was passed on to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) for buildings that fall within the city limits. In 2002, another set of draft regulations were put together in consultation with the CMDA. These remained in the draft stage.

The Second Master Plan of the city has incorporated certain rules concerning heritage buildings, but all these lack teeth as there has been no inventory of such buildings after which a grading activity which will classify the structures on the basis of their importance also needs to be done.

As part of the draft regulations, the Madras Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) began listing out the buildings which it felt ought to be classified as heritage structures. These numbered around a 100 and were mostly public buildings. It would be no exaggeration to state that the number of buildings that ought to be classified thus could go up to 1500 or more. As none of these buildings are covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, several have already been pulled down, defaced or irrevocably altered.

Another development took place in 2006 when the Madras High Court directed the formation of a committee in connection with cases pertaining to outdoor advertising. The committee, headed by a retired judge, was asked to list places of heritage, aesthetic, religious and educational importance and come up with recommendations on how these were to be treated. The committee in its report had listed several such buildings and also classified them by way of importance. The final judgement, as is well known, ordered the removal of all hoardings, which was done. But the government did not take cognizance of the aspects concerning protecting of heritage buildings.

What is interesting is that the Government already had a heritage committee, which rarely meets. The last meeting, held some time ago, had agreed that the list of heritage buildings that has already been made out would be publicised by means of advertisements and a public discussion would be held. The final list of buildings would then be published and those on it would be protected from all changes. However, the advertisements have not been forthcoming and the buildings continue to suffer. It is the view of this paper that the Government will reply to the latest directive of Court stating that it already has a committee in place and that would be the end of the matter.

In the meanwhile, the city and the state continue losing their buildings. What is needed is a political will to get a Heritage Act passed and in its absence, our heritage stands in the danger of being obliterated.