India has a new Finance Minister in P. Chidambaram. The portfolio is, of course not new to him, for he has held it several times before. The markets are hoping that his taking over the portfolio will bring a new phase of growth for the Indian economy. The Finance Minister has promised to take steps to “keep the market tempo upbeat.” While welcoming this, we at Madras Musings hope that he will also keep an earlier promise, that of restoring Bharat Insurance (Kardyl) Building.
It was on August 24, 2008 that the Minister was in the city to release a book on the Connemara Hotel penned by the Editor of Madras Musings. The sorry state of Bharat Insurance Building was brought to his notice and, in his speech, he promised that he would ensure its preservation and restoration. To quote from the Indo-Asian News Service report of the event, these were the Minister’s words: “I promise, by using or misusing my powers, I will instruct LIC (Life Insurance Corporation of India) not to bring down the historic Bharat Insurance Building. The building could be used as a training centre or even as a museum.” This was hailed by every newspaper that reported the event.
And rightfully so, for that would be a service that will be forever remembered with gratitude in this city. Bharat Insurance Building has been an integral part of the city’s skyline from the 19th Century. It also typifies what has been described as Indo-Saracenic architecture run riot. Considering that Madras gave birth to that particular style, would it not be appropriate if the building was retained and splendidly restored to its delightful best.
Not according to the LIC. It had allowed the building to go to seed and in 2006 initiated proceedings for its demolition. This was despite the CMDA having inspected the building and given it a clean chit on grounds of structural stability. It was also considered to be of Grade ‘A’ significance in term of its architecture.
The demolition was challenged by INTACH and the CMDA in the High Court of Madras. By the time a stay could be obtained, large portions of the roof had been removed. LIC preferred to take the matter to the Supreme Court which referred the matter to the High Court of Madras. The latter in a landmark judgement in 2010 included Bharat Insurance Building in a set of 400-plus heritage structures that could not be demolished. The grade ‘A’ certification was also confirmed.
The matter has since been challenged by the LIC in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, under the guise of protecting the building, LIC had it covered with plastic sheets, which it subsequently removed. It has also put up notices all around the building declaring that it is structurally unsafe. That it has no intentions of protecting the edifice is clear from the fact that it has permitted Metrorail to carry on work within the precinct, in close proximity to the building.
INTACH has in the past suggested to LIC that the structure ought to be preserved just as the LIC has done with several historic buildings in its possession in Bombay. But LIC has chosen to turn a deaf ear. It is understood that LIC wants to build a modern multi-storey building on the site.
That Bharat Insurance Building continues to stand despite so much neglect is by itself a miracle. It will be a greater miracle if the LIC changes its stance. The Finance Minister is perhaps the only one who can ensure that.