The year 2010 appeared to be the harbinger of good news when it came to the Government extending protection to the city’s heritage buildings. As the year progressed, matters appeared to become better – what with the High Court preventing the demolition of Gokhale Hall and the Bharath Insurance (Kardyll) Building and also ordering the Government to set up a Heritage Conservation Committee. Since then, it has been a journey that is steadily downhill.
After a brisk start, the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) has lapsed into bureaucratic lethargy. There have been no meetings of the Committee since July this year. In the meanwhile, the rather vaguely worded letter that it sent out to owners of heritage properties in the city has only spurred them on to demolition and redevelopment. Sources are of the view that the letter could have been more positively worded. They are also of the opinion that it does not spell out what could be punishment in case a listed building is demolished. Thus despite a court order to the effect, several of the buildings listed have been brought down. The latest to join this tally are a couple of railways bungalows in Perambur. Work has begun on erection of multi-storeyed buildings on the site. Those concerned at the fate of the heritage buildings have taken photographs of the demolition and forwarded them to the Committee but there has not even been an acknowledgment of receipt, leave alone any action. It would appear that the Government is of the view that it has done enough by forming the HCC and nothing further needs to be accomplished.
When it was set up, the HCC had a three-fold mandate. The first and immediate one was to give its views on the proposed demolition of Gokhale Hall and the Bharath Insurance (Kardyll) Building. This it did, categorically asserting that demolition should be prevented. But it has since then done nothing on either structure. No talks have been initiated with the property owners as to the restoration of both buildings. The Life Insurance Corporation which owns Bharath Insurance Building has in the meanwhile appealed in the Supreme Court against the Madras High Court’s judgement ordering the prevention of demolition. Its contention is that it was well within its rights to demolish, armed as it was with a certificate from the Madras Corporation that the building was an unsafe and a weak structure. It has also alleged that it has incurred a hefty loss by not being allowed to develop the property. The fate of the building therefore hangs in the balance once again, even as lawyers on both sides begin their arguments. And as for the HCC, it is has remained silent on the whole development. It is also reliably learnt that the YMIA, the owners of the Gokhale Hall may also be contemplating action similar to that of the LIC.
The HCC’s second mandate was to go prepare a list of heritage buildings and forward the same to the Government for the enactment of a suitable law to protect them. The buildings covered under the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report concerning outdoor advertising were to form the basis for the list. The HCC was to study the list and come to its own conclusions on which of the buildings out of these were worthy of preserving. It was also to list buildings outside the Padmanabhan Committee’s list and debate on whether some of those could also be protected. This again has not been done. As is to be expected from a Committee largely filled with bureaucrats, there is considerable uncertainty as to the exact procedure to be followed. There is also the question of who or which is the qualified agency that can prepare such a list. It would be worthwhile pointing out here that INTACH had prepared a list several years ago and this is already with the CMDA. All the HCC has to do is to retrieve that list and update it as regards additions and deletions. But even this simple task as proved to be beyond the abilities of the HCC.
Lastly, the HCC was to work on helping the Government in framing a Heritage Act. But with even the basic steps not being taken, it is extremely doubtful if the Committee can ever hope to ensure the passing of such an Act. And in the meanwhile, thanks to rising land prices, heritage properties are vanishing every day.