We congratulate the Government for introducing in the Legislature a much-needed heritage conservation Bill that this journal and other heritage lovers have sought from 1999 following a focus on heritage in the City that began in 1977. While welcoming the Bill, we reserve our comments till we study it. Meanwhile, we trust that it offers an indisputable interpretation of heritage and doesn’t leave Government to view heritage depending on the exigencies of the moment. This kind of flip-flop attitude has in the past caused, and is due to cause, unless the Heritage Bill stops it, further damage to whatever is left in the city that can be classified as constituting heritage. We thus have an ironic situation where centuries-old monuments and buildings are being neglected while lakhs are being spent, in the name of heritage, on renovating recent structures that are already showing signs of structural weakness.
Take Rajaji Hall for instance. The Government had in 2008 announced a restoration package for this heritage structure located inside Government Estate. But then the new Assembly came along and though the restoration proceeded uninterrupted, the Hall was locked up. Last heard, its verandahs were filled with broken furniture from the various offices that were demolished to make way for the new Assembly. And its interiors were filled with files and papers belonging to some Government departments that have promised to shift them “in due course”. After the recent fire at Chepauk Palace and given our history of fires breaking out in historic buildings, stuffing Rajaji Hall with paper may not be the best of ideas.
Chepauk Palace’s fate is still uncertain. It is now more than two months since the three-man committee (whatever be the merits and demerits of its composition) came out with a report that recommended restoration of a mixed kind. While the debate on whether its verdict was correct or wrong can continue, what cannot be denied is that restoration and not demolition was the key recommendation. On the basis of that, the Government ought to have by now moved to inviting tenders, at least for consultancy. But nothing appears to have happened and the skeleton of the palace is exposed to the vagaries of Nature. Why this delay?
The Metrorail is a Juggernaut of a different kind, which regularly appears to find heritage structures and historic parks in its way. They appear to be made for each other and aiding this process of sacrificing the latter for the former is the CMDA which has continuously been coming up with creative interpretations of what constitutes heritage. After the P Orr & Sons episode, it is now the turn of Bharat Insurance Building. In response to a letter from INTACH reminding Metrorail that the building’s fate is sub judice and so no construction can be taken up there, Metrorail has stated that it only proposes construction within the compound and not within the building. It states that in its (and presumably CMDA’s) view, only the building is heritage and sub judice and not the compound space. Whoever has heard of such logic before? And what happened to the concept of a heritage precinct and the necessity to prevent modern construction within close quarters of a heritage building?
Even that concept may now be under threat. In a first of its kind (and it is ironic that our city which had many glorious firsts should also be in the forefront of such developments), the National Monuments Authority (NMA) has reportedly ruled that construction of Metrorail can come within 100 metres of the Hynmer’s Obelisk, popularly called the Yale Monument, in the Law College campus. It has declared that the structure, though more than 300 years old and ‘protected’ by the ASI, is of less importance and, in view of the importance of Metrorail, permission can be granted for construction within 100 metres of the Monument. All authorities are completely silent on what happened to the neighbouring Powney Vault, which presumably was flattened without any approvals. It would also appear that the NMA’s approval was a mere formality, for Metrorail had even two months ago put up barricades within 100 metres of the Yale Monument. What is also baffling is the complete silence of the ASI on this matter. It can only be interpreted that the decision had its full blessings.
Contrast all this with the way in which the Namakkal Kavignar Building is being handled. Everyone, from the ASI to the CMDA, is agreed that, though built in the 1980s, it constitutes ‘heritage’ and deserves restoration! And contrast this further with the fact that 300-year-old structures are not falling down despite fires and neglect, while this building repeatedly needs attention! That’s modern heritage construction for you.