The workings of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) under the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) are shrouded in mystery. But what is quite clear is that the speed at which it works is better suited to the era in which the buildings it is meant to protect were constructed. And in the process of grinding slowly, its wheels are letting several opportunities slip. Given the pace of its working, it is open to question as to whether the HCC seriously intends protecting any heritage structure.

Take the listing of heritage buildings, for instance. Despite the presence of a list put together by INTACH (Oops! Who or what is that?), and a subsequent list put together by the Padmanabhan Committee, the HCC is once again in the process of listing buildings. The modus operandi of this exercise and the people involved in the process are top secrets. It is exactly three years (judgement was on April 29, 2010) since the Hon’ble High Court of Madras mandated the formation of the HCC. And at the end of this period, all that the HCC has to show is a first list of 70 buildings and a promise of a second list ‘quite soon’. Even the first list has not been made public (State secret, you see) and we only have vague rumours of the buildings that have made it to that list. It would be relevant to pause and ponder over the fact that the Padmanabhan Committee list and INTACH’s list had 400 and more buildings enumerated.

And what after the first and second lists are finalised in the fullness of time, at the appropriate juncture and when the moment is ripe, to quote from a British sitcom when lampooned that country’s bureaucracy? The HCC proposes to write to the owners. The last time these people heard from the HCC was three years ago when, following the directives of the Court, the HCC wrote to the owners of all the properties/precincts listed as per the Padmanabhan Committee. They were restrained from demolishing or making any changes to their premises. Now, it is learnt, the owners of the buildings featuring in the HCC’s first list will be invited for public consultations. What of the owners of the remaining buildings? They will, it is presumed, sit tight and continue to wait for further instructions even as the structures in their possession gradually wither away. Some, of course, are bound to rejoice, as the status quo helps those who are not interested in preserving their heritage structures.

That is not the end of the story. Those who own buildings featuring in the first list will be categorically told that they cannot expect any support from the Government for protecting their heritage. This is expected to be done at the owners’ expense. If they cannot afford to do so, then what?

Will the HCC, at least, help with technical advice on what can be done? No, because that is not perceived to be its mandate. Peopled as it is by members who are all from the Government and its aided institutions, there is complete conformity to the rulebook and a certain rigid adherence to procedures that makes the very formation of the HCC a self-defeating exercise. If at the end of three years all that there is to show is a measly list of 70 buildings yet to be made public, when are we likely to see any constructive action that will result in some positive protection of our heritage? Are we hoping for too much?

Further, a judgement of the Court called for the HCC to assess the buildings identified in the Padmanabhan Committee Report and advise on how these are to be conserved and made places of tourist importance. What of that mandate?