The last few weeks have been gloomy on the heritage front. First, there was the Chepauk Palace fire, then came the less disastrous fire at Agurchand Mansions, the first 100-foot building on Mount Road. The Madrasa-e-Azam was reported to be in a state of near collapse and at the GPO a part of the roof caved in. But like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, it would appear that matters are not all that bad, for the public appears to be waking up to its heritage. That there is a groundswell in favour of preservation and restoration is now evident from recent action, but equally clear is that in the absence of proper guidelines on what can be done, such enthusiasm may soon result in misguided action.
That there is a gradual strengthening of the heritage movement is clear from a whole host of recent events. The Government, it is learnt, has given the go ahead for the proper restoration of the Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in George Town. This is being done with an accredited conservation expert at the helm. At the Madrasa-e-Azam, those in charge would still like to preserve the place and are looking for guidance. Restoration at the Victoria Public Hall and Ripon Building, it is understood, is proceeding apace and plans are afoot for formal re-openings in the next few months. Those in power, always experts at reading public opinion, were quick enough to dissociate themselves from the hasty pronouncement of demolition and called for a panel to study Chepauk Palace. That the composition of the committee is questionable is a different matter altogether. After the fire at Agurchand Mansions, it has emerged that owner and tenants alike have expressed unanimously their desire to restore the heritage building. And in the case of the Gokhale Hall, the High Court has ordered the restoration of the building. That this was in response to public interest litigation petitions is another instance of growing heritage awareness.
What is needed at this stage is proper guidance on what can be done with heritage buildings. These cover a wide gamut of action points – from repair and restoration to income enhancement by way of selling space and tourism. None of these is available at present and owners of heritage structures are left to their own devices, not all of which result in a happy ending.
Firstly, there is the dearth of engineers, technicians and artisans who are qualified to work on heritage structures. The average construction professional is quite happy to recommend demolition, failing which a solution completely out of place with early building technology is suggested. Secondly, there are no guidelines on what can be done for maintenance of heritage buildings. In an edifice with multiple tenants and sometimes several owners as well, each undertakes restoration and repair work as per his own light and sometimes these can be disastrous. Recent fires are proof of this. Lastly, nobody is aware that heritage buildings can generate income as well. You only need to see what is being done in Europe, the U.S. and Australia where there are many towns that survive entirely on heritage.
All this and more needs to be the immediate action at hand for the Heritage Conservation Committee backed by a Heritage Act. But that august body is at present functioning more like a Government department, having meetings once in a while with no action to show for it, and no one in power is talking about that most essential piece of legislation. If at all there is a moment to act, this is it.