A public interest petition has been filed in the High Court of Madras last week, seeking an order to prevent demolition of the historic Royapuram railway station. With this, the oldest surviving rail terminus of India has joined a long line of heritage structures that have sought legal protection from the wreckers’ hammer. As to whether the building will survive or not is therefore now dependent on the verdict, which will not be an easy one to deliver.

There is really no law in the State under which demolition of structures such as the Royapuram station can be prevented, especially when the owners, in this case the Railways themselves, are keen on razing it to the ground. The earlier judgement by Justice Prabha Sridevan in the Bharat Insurance Building case had listed 400-odd buildings of which Royapuram station is also one. It had asked the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) formed by the Government to study each of these buildings in detail and notify them as heritage structures. That has not been done so far. In the absence of notification through a Government Gazette, there is really no protection for these structures other than the claim that they have been protected under the Bharat Insurance judgement.

Thus far, there have been very few instances where court judgements have brought about protection and, more importantly, restoration. The sole shining example is the Directorate General of Police buildings on the Marina where the police has not only protected and restored but has also been true to its commitment that extensions and new buildings in the vicinity would be in the same architectural style. In the old Madras Club buildings case that involved INTACH and the owners, namely Express Estates, the judgement went in favour of the owners and permitted demolition on the grounds of there being no law that they were transgressing. In the Bharat Insurance and Gokhale Hall cases while the court ordered that there should be no demolition, there was no directive to restore and so both structures have remained mere shells, facing an uncertain fate.

Litigations involving public buildings, especially those that are to be demolished to make way for modern amenities, are perceived to be anti-people. They are often criticised as wasting public time and money. While not going into that aspect, it cannot be denied that this is also a point of view and it has influenced judgements in the past.

Lastly, directly jumping into litigation without discussion and debate, particularly with the owners with a view to getting them to see alternative routes to development, is a self-defeating exercise. It merely hardens attitudes. And irrespective of whether the judgement is in favour or against demolition, it proves detrimental to the structure in the long term. If it is for demolition, it makes sure that the owners completely and immediately raze the structure to the ground for fear of further time spent in appeals. If it is for preservation, the owners simply let the building be sans maintenance and let it fall into ruin over time. In the present instance of Royapuram, particularly when the owners have displayed sympathy to the cause of heritage in respect of their various other properties, a dialogue with them may have produced better results. That now is in the realm of idle speculation for the matter is sub judice. While the end result may go either way we cannot help repeating that a Heritage Act legislated by the State will go a long way in avoiding such litigation. And such an Act is taking a long time in coming. Meanwhile, can the HCC not press for at least notifying the 400-odd structures already identified by the Court?