A new dispensation has taken charge in the State and among its first acts was the decision to revert to Fort St George as the seat of power. The move is correct insofar as a historic perspective is concerned. After all, the Fort has been the centre of governance ever since 1639. Continuing to operate from there shows a fine sense of heritage. But when you look at the expenditure and effort that went into creating a new Assembly cum Secretariat, it makes you wonder about the decision to go back to the Fort.
Tamil Nadu is not the first State in India to have relocated its Secretariat. But what makes it stand out is that the usage of the new building will depend on who is in power. That makes this probably the only State in the Union to have two Assembly buildings, one of them in a perpetual state of standby. And if Rs 1000 crores and more has been spent on constructing a new edifice, it gives food for thought. Leaving aside the cost aspects, the loss incurred by heritage during the construction of the new (now old) Assembly and Secretariat is incalculable. Gandhi Illam, Government House, Kalaivanar Arangam, Cooum House and the grand gates complete with horse show boxes for the guards, were all sacrificed with nary a thought during the construction. Interestingly, all of these were monuments listed as worthy of preservation by the Justice Padmanabhan Committee, a list that was later made the basis of the High Court’s order for the preservation of Chennai’s heritage both built and natural. Rajaji Hall and the Triplicane Police Station were the sole survivors with the latter still in use while the former has been made completely out of bounds thanks to security considerations. The tree cover of Government Estate was denuded beyond recovery. All these things are never going to come back, even if the Assembly has shifted back to Fort St George.
The one great positive possibility when the Government shifted out of the Fort was that steps could have been taken to have the precinct declared a world heritage site. But that hope was quashed when the then party in power decided to house the Centre for Classical Tamil in the Assembly building. Now with the Government back in the Fort, the area has once again become a high security zone with no chances of it becoming a world heritage site. There is however a positive side here too – the place will at least be in continuous use, which is a feature that keeps heritage alive and well.
Perhaps it is high time that Tamil Nadu, given its seesawing politics, makes it a practice to solicit public opinion before taking momentous decisions of such a nature. This is the practice with city councils in various parts of the world. Once the public has spoken, the decision is irrevocable and everyone works for a satisfactory culmination. And if such a step is considered, perhaps it is time to see if the State needs a new capital, outside of Chennai. Lets face it, the city is bursting at the seams and shifting the administration will go a long way in easing several of its problems. And if that were to happen, why not look at a town such as Tiruchirapalli, an idea that was first thought of in the early 1980s and later abandoned for no particular reason?