But modalities remain unclear

In what will come as a shot in the arm to heritage enthusiasts and conservation activists, the Government of Tamil Nadu has finally recognised the necessity of saving and maintaining heritage buildings in Chennai. This reading is based on a statement made by the Minister for Slum Clearance and Accommodation Control that “Chennai has many heritage buildings with historical significance and architectural excellence. The list of buildings will be released and the CMDA will maintain them”. As this was said on the floor of the Assembly, it can be taken as a commitment on the part of the Government and it will hopefully make it to a policy document. While welcoming this development wholeheartedly, Madras Musings would like to point out that much will depend on how this well-intentioned idea translates into ground reality.

The first question concerns the buildings that will be included in this list. Will the Government base its selection on the list that INTACH put together more than ten years ago? It would be significant to point out that many of the buildings on that list have vanished thanks to the decade long delay.

Assuming that the Government does indeed base itself on the INTACH list, has it applied its collective mind to issues concerning ownership? A number of heritage buildings are in the possession of organisations that are Government of India undertakings, Central Government departments, private corporate houses, private societies and individuals. A few examples would be the General Post Office (and several other post offices), the State Bank of India properties, the railway stations and a residences. How does the CMDA hope to take on the maintenance of these properties? And who will fund this? If the CMDA hopes to leave it to the discretion of the individual owners, the proposal will never get off the ground. There is also scope for any number of disputes.

What would really be best would be to follow a structured plan. The first would be to finalise a list of buildings that would be sub-divided into three – buildings of utmost heritage (historical and architectural) importance where no changes can be done both internally and externally, a second list of buildings of medium importance where changes can be done to the interior without altering the façade and a third list that would comprise buildings that can be recommended for preservation or at least commemoration by way of plaques.

A strict code of maintenance for these buildings will have to be drawn up which would then be applicable to all parties concerned irrespective of ownership. This should also stipulate what are the minimum levels of maintenance that will have to be adhered to. At this stage, if any private individuals or institutions feel that they cannot continue with maintaining heritage properties in their possession, they can come forward to discuss transfer of development rights or seek alternative land elsewhere. This will require more teeth and structure being given to the TDR provisions in the Second Master Plan, which are inchoate at best at this moment.

The Government will need to appoint a Heritage Committee that will go into applications for proposed changes/maintenance activities at any listed building. Such activities can be sanctioned only after the committee’s approval.

Lastly, the Government will also need to show the way by employing teams that are trained in heritage building conservation for structures within its own control. Simply handing over such edifices to PWD or CMDA personnel for maintenance is not the answer as they are not capable of work requiring finesse in execution.

It is only if all these guidelines are in place that the Government’s excellent idea of maintaining heritage buildings really have the desired effect. Otherwise this too will be one of the many rules and regulations, observed more in the breach.