The newspapers are full of reports on how the twin arches at Anna Nagar were saved after intervention at the highest level. There have also been several expressions of wonder at how the arches resisted demolition. Subsequent reports on how this was because of wrong methodology being adopted for the dismantling did nothing to stop the circulating of the story of the arches having a will of their own. And then to top it all were comments expressing regret on how two well-known ‘heritage’ structures were being done away with. What is ironic is that none of these sentiments are forthcoming when it comes to genuinely old and historic buildings and edifices.
Let us face it, none of the old buildings of Madras that is Chennai were built with eventual demolition in mind. In fact, there were meant to last. And when the all-too-easy-to-obtain demolition certificate was granted, it was found that bringing the structures down was not all that easy. Take for instance Bentinck’s Building on whose site the Singaravelar Maligai has now come up on Rajaji Salai. When the earlier building was being brought down after obtaining a certificate that the building was structurally weak, it took eight days to dislodge each pillar from its base. Similar is the story with Government House which was demolished in undue haste to make way for the Assembly that nobody seems to want now. A story has been persistently circulating that after several days of demolition, what was left was finally imploded to get things over. Even the so-called fire-ravaged buildings such as Moore Market and Spencers took their time in being razed to the ground. So the stubbornness displayed by the Anna Arches is nothing new.
What is sad is the alacrity with which much older structures are allowed to be done away with, no thought being given to their heritage. Fort St George has several including historic Wellesley House, buildings inside Queen Mary’s College are allowed to waste away and the National Art Gallery inside the Government Museum complex has a crack on its dome that could bring it down any day. Chepauk palace is still a burnt-out shell, awaiting the slow process of tendering to bear fruit. What about these structures? Do they not merit intervention at the highest level? And why should demolition be the inevitable fate of most buildings of their kind?
These are questions that the Government needs to answer if it is serious about heritage conservation. The earlier Heritage Conservation Committee under the CMDA did nothing much. The details of the present Heritage Conservation Commission Bill that was piloted in the last Assembly session are shrouded in secrecy. While a senior Government servant had it that it had received the Governor’s assent, the notification has not taken place and so the legislation is yet to become law. Only after that will the Heritage Conservation Commission be constituted and then depending upon the speed at which it acts, it will take steps to save our heritage. Evidently not all our buildings merit the same speedy attention.