The High Court of Madras may have declared a certain number of buildings as protection-worthy and ordered that they cannot be demolished but that is clearly not enough. For in the absence of any Heritage Act or any directive on what is to be done to such buildings, their future continues to be uncertain. Those who are keen on protecting heritage buildings in their possession are not sure as to what they can do and those wanting to demolish and develop are seeking out various loopholes in the law to be allowed to go ahead. Caught in the middle of all this is the Heritage Conservation Committee, which is moving at a pace that may make snails seem to be in an unseemly hurry.
The Bible Society building on Memorial Hall Street was demolished long after it was included in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee list of buildings, which formed the basis for the High Court’s order to protect them. It now transpires that the church had all along had in its possession a demolition certificate from the CMDA which allowed it to proceed. It is also reliably learnt that the church has abandoned its earlier plan of a multi-storeyed structure on the site and is promising a new construction that will be in architectural sympathy with the neighbouring Memorial Hall. If so, why the demolition at all? And what defines architectural sympathy? In the absence of any guidelines, you cannot help recollecting two earlier instances – that of Spencers and Bentinck’s Buildings. In both cases, it was promised that the new structures would be on the lines of the buildings that were brought down. What we got finally was not anything even remotely similar.
Lack of guidelines is proving to be a major headache in a host of other cases as well. The Government is keen on demolishing the historic Mint on the eponymous street. The Heritage Conservation Committee it is learnt, is evenly divided on the issue and matters rest there for the present. Several hospitals are proceeding with demolition and development with no restraint. The Kasturba Gandhi (Victoria Caste and Gosha) Hospital in Triplicane has brought down entire wings and is proceeding with modern highrise, completely out of synch with the remaining buildings. The Ophthalmic and the CSI Kalyani Hospitals are also planning on various developments on their respective campuses and nobody is certain as to what plans are afoot.
If these are issues concerning lack of guidelines where redevelopment is involved, at least two other instances point to the lack of a Heritage Act. Both Gokhale Hall and Bharat Insurance Buildings are semi-demolished structures where further destruction was prevented by court order. But there has been no progress in terms getting a positive direction on how to restore both these buildings. Cases are pending in court and both the structures are exposed to the vagaries of nature. A fortnight back, the LIC, which owns Bharat Insurance Building, had the entire structure wrapped in synthetic sheets with ostensible purpose of preventing further damage. But this is a double-edged sword for now nobody can be certain as to what is happening inside the building.
It is in cases like this that a more dynamic Heritage Conservation Committee could make all the difference. But right now, meetings of the Committee are few and far between with very little concrete action emerging. And the composition of the Committee being largely bureaucratic, the ongoing State elections have emerged as the most convenient reason for no further action being taken. Everyone on board is keenly watching out for any changes in the composition of the powers-that-be and much will depend on the eventual outcome. Till then the future of heritage buildings in the city will continue to remain uncertain.