The word Masonic is perhaps what best describes our State Government’s policy as far as heritage conservation and preservation are concerned. Beyond making a few public noises and claiming to be doing everything for conservation and restoration, there is very little action forthcoming. And what there is, is veiled under such secrecy as to be completely opaque to the public at large.
Take for instance the much-touted Heritage Conservation Commission that was to be appointed and for which a Bill was introduced – and passed – in the Legislative Assembly in June. Ever since then, there is uncertainty as to what precisely has happened. The Secretary, Department of Tourism and Culture, had in a speech in August claimed that the Bill had been passed by the Assembly and was awaiting Governor’s assent. But after that, there has been no news on it. Indeed, the Bill does not even figure in the list of legislations as provided in the Government web site.
Meanwhile, it is reliably learnt that there is considerable jockeying for the post of Chairman of the Heritage Conservation Commission. What is certain is that it will be populated mainly by Government representatives. Five Secretaries of the Government those in charge of Tourism and Culture, Urban Housing and Development, Archaeology and Museums, Finance and the PWD – are a certainty, it is understood.
While the Government is taking its own time over this Bill/Law/Commission, buildings that are crying out for attention are weakening by the day.
The next great exercise in secrecy is the functioning of the already existing Heritage Conservation Committee, which was formulated by the CMDA as a result of the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report and the Justice Prabha Sridevan judgement in the Gokhale Hall and Bharat Insurance Buildings cases. Ever since INTACH was removed from the Committee post the P Orr & Sons case, there are no independent members on it. And even when INTACH was in it, there was not much progress, the Committee being invariably satisfied with recording demolitions that had happened and willing to consider proposals for demolition if the Government was so inclined. Now a newspaper report has it that the Committee claims to have received 24 proposals from various owners of heritage buildings and it has given its suggestions. Considering that Committee’s jurisdiction is over the buildings listed in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee and most of those buildings are Government-owned, it would be reasonable to assume that the recommendations concerning them would be made public. But, no, complete silence is the order of the day.
The third is the Metro Rail’s study on the impact of its drilling and tunnel-boring work on heritage buildings in the vicinity of its work. Already, cracks in the LIC Building and the fall of a minaret atop the Law College building have been attributed by some to the ongoing Metro work. Metro Rail, of course, has denied these and has also claimed that it has commissioned a study by experts on the potential fall-out of its work. That report has been given to Metro Rail, but it is in no hurry to make the findings public. Meanwhile, work is continuing regardless. So when is this report to see the light of day? If the study has indeed cleared Metro Rail work on the grounds of terms of safety, what is there to fear? Why don’t we have transparency?
The last pertains to several heritage buildings that are in various stages of renovation, all sponsored by the Government. The VP Hall and Ripon Building are cases where work is ongoing. The Museum is said to be receiving funds for the renovation of the Irwin-designed National Gallery. Structures such as Victoria Hostel are awaiting plans for restoration. Chepauk Palace awaits tenders for its restoration, terms of which, incidentally, are none too clear. How long will these buildings have to wait?
It is high time the Government realises that it has a responsibility to its people to preserve the city’s heritage. And unless it wakes up to this, we are not likely to see much of it left.