The State Government has announced that it is planning to bring in two laws on the heritage protection front, one specifically covering Mamallapuram, which is a recognised World Heritage Site, and the other covering heritage and cultural properties across the State. This is a good development as far as intent is concerned. Much, of course, will depend on how this will translate into reality. This is not the first time that the State has raised hopes of legislation for protecting heritage, only to pass over to what it felt are more pressing issues. Those promises were made as far back as 1999 and, again, in 2002, and then even more recently when Heritage Regulations/Acts were drafted or reviewed.
The latest announcement has it that a Heritage Commission Act is on the anvil which will constitute a body that can advise the State Government on preparing a classification of heritage buildings into various grades. It will also advise local authorities on the developmental rights of such heritage properties. What the Government appears to have overlooked are two aspects:
1. That such a body already exists – namely the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) constituted by the CMDA in response to the High Court’s judgement in 2010 in the case concerning the demolition of Bharat Insurance Building. That the Committee, comprised largely by bureaucrats, became a handmaiden of the CMDA is another matter altogether. The State Government will do well not to repeat this mistake and when creating the Heritage Commission it should make it like the Urban Arts Commission of Delhi, a body with independent powers.
2. That the exercise of grading and listing heritage buildings has been done at least a couple of times. The first time was when draft Heritage Regulations/Acts were drawn up by the Town and Country Planning Department teaming with INTACH in 1999 and then by the CMDA and INTACH in 2002. The second time was when the Justice Padmanabhan Committee was put together by the High Court in connection with a case on outdoor hoardings. The report of that Committee, of which INTACH was also a member, formed the basis of the 2010 judgement referred to above which resulted in the formation of the HCC.
Even before that, INTACH had drawn up its own list for the City’s municipal limits. What needs now to be looked at is a fine tuning of these lists into one comprehensive list and then identifying heritage buildings in Greater Chennai and elsewhere in the State.
The decision to include the entire State within the ambit of the proposed Heritage Commission is commendable. So far, the heritage movement has been fairly dormant in most towns of the State, resulting in large-scale desecration and wrecking of heritage sites which are not protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. It is imperative that the legislation constituting the Commission is passed at the earliest. What is even more important is that the Commission should work quickly in getting its list of heritage sites together and ensuring that the list is notified with the passage of a Heritage Act. Only then can we have some legal protection for heritage buildings and sites.
Readers of Madras Musings need hardly be reminded that the draft of a Heritage Act, at least for the city of Madras, was completed as far back as 1999 and had it been adopted then we would not be a city minus buildings such as Gandhi Illam, Capper House, the erstwhile Madras Club building on Express Estates, and Government House. Chepauk Palace may not have been consumed by fire. And Bharat Insurance Building would not be facing an uncertain future. However, with Queen Mary’s College being threatened in 2003, the draft regulations were quietly forgotten. Since then there have been attempts at revival in fits and starts but nothing concrete has emerged. All this despite the fact that there is a groundswell of public opinion in favour of a Heritage Act. What is needed is quick action.