The High Court of Madras, one of the three courts of judicature established by royal charter, the other two being Calcutta and Bombay, turns 150 this year. It is a landmark in the life of a landmark institution, set in a landmark campus. A yearlong series of celebrations has been planned. The first of these was held in November with a foundation stone being laid for the construction of a museum within the campus. While this is a welcome move, it would perhaps also be appropriate if the restoration of the 120-year-old building, arguably one of Chennai’s best recognised heritage structures is also taken up.
The High Court of Madras has always been a supporter of heritage. Landmark judgements have been made in the past few years on issues concerning historic buildings – the DGP Office on Beach Road was saved thanks to the Court. Judgments also prevented the demolition of Bharat Insurance Buildings and Gokhale Hall, though now these have been appealed against and are pending at the Supreme Court. A list of 400 or so heritage buildings now enjoy a modicum of protection thanks to the Court declaring them as structures worthy of preservation and ensuring that the Government set up a Heritage Conservation Committee to look after their welfare.
The High Court is also deeply conscious of its own history. A functional museum is already in place within the main building and has a curator. The proposed museum building will no doubt be a larger structure, worthy of a 150 year-old institution. Early in 2007 the High Court also set up a Heritage and Environment Committee under the then Chief Justice. Comprising judges, lawyers and INTACH members, the committee was to undertake a phased restoration of the building, in time to be completed by 2012 when the 150th year would end. However, after the initial enthusiasm, the working of the committee slowed down and there is as yet no plan for work to be taken up on the building.
The campus, described by Lord Wenlock, Governor of Madras at the time of its inauguration in 1892 as leaving nothing to be desired in beauty of design or perfection of execution, has been showing signs of stress in the last few years. The number of people in the premises has gone up exponentially and so has the corresponding demand for public conveniences and vehicle parking spaces. The response to these has been haphazard. Toilets have come up at all available spots with no concern for the well-being of the historic building. The PWD, which is in charge of maintenance has been wanting in its care. A few months ago, a massive pillar supporting the main structure was drilled halfway, with no though to the possible long-term effect. This was objected to by heritage enthusiasts among the judiciary and the work was stopped. The installation of air-conditioning has however was allowed to go through, with holes being made on the walls and unsightly ducts no covering most of the ceiling. The proliferation of coal dust, thanks to the presence of the Port close by, is an added problem. Most of the historic portraits are covered with grime and are crying out for restoration.
If this is the condition of the High Court, the situation in subordinate courts is said to be far worse. Newspapers have been repeatedly highlighting the problems and litigants and lawyers have been asking for improvements. But with the PWD invariably in-charge, work has not been in keeping with the heritage nature of the structures.
It is in the light of the above that the Heritage and Environment Committee needs to be revived immediately. It has to be given a clear-cut and time-bound mandate for completion of its work, so that the High Court’s building stands out as an example of what a heritage structure can be like, if cared for well.