Tunnelling for the Metro in the Broadway area recently resulted in two historic churches developing cracks. With these being certified as non-threatening to the structures, work has progressed. Metrorail has also promised that it will repair the buildings immediately. All this is to the good. But the week-long drama merely exposed the fact that heritage structures in the city do not have any proactive protection as the following lines will show.
The first building to develop fissures was the Wesley Church. The matter received due publicity in the press. The response was predictable. It is reliably learnt that Metrorail was of the view that such cracks were only to be expected. But with a second church, the Arcot Lutheran, too showing signs of stress, experts from the IIT had to be called in. This was after the parishioners of both shrines expressing distress at what had happened. The IIT certified the fissures were superficial and Metro promised to get them repaired. Matters have ended there now. The Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA, which is supposed to be responsible for the protection of such historic structures, was conspicuous by its silence. Not even a line expressing concern could be elicited. To what purpose is such a body?
What is being forgotten is that Broadway is replete with historic structures and there are at least 16 of them down the principal thoroughfare. Among the listed ones, the Church Missionary Society’s Parish Hall is in a particularly enfeebled condition. It has already required shoring up of one wall using steel supports. An edifice that is more than a century in age, it belongs to the CSI’s Tucker’s Church, which stands opposite. Work is yet to begin on the stretch where this building stands and it is doubtful if it can withstand tunnel boring below its foundations, unless some special efforts are taken to support it. But that is unlikely to happen as Metrorail does not have a publicly available policy on what steps it takes to protect heritage buildings before work begins in the vicinity. Beyond asking owners and users to stay away from the premises, it does little. It merely installs some vibration monitors in the vicinity and by the time the readings are noted, the damage is done. Steps for protection, if any, are taken only after cracks develop and there is a hue and cry.
Even now it is not too late. There cannot be more than 100 identified heritage structures along the routes that Metrorail will be taking. Why cannot the HCC insist that Metrorail, together with IIT, undertake a study of each of the structures? The effort must detail what are the weak points in each and identify what steps need to be taken to prevent any structural damage. The recommended safeguards can be put in place before work begins. That way everyone would be happy.
The current episode has, however, thrown up one positive development. This is the first time that Metrorail has acknowledged that cracks are due to its activities. Earlier, when similar incidents took place on Mount Road and the Esplanade area, stout denial was the sole reaction. And whatever little action has taken place in connection with the two churches is entirely due to the strong involvement of the parishioners who have demonstrated a strong sense of ownership and pride in their heritage. Not all heritage structures are so lucky. It is reliably learnt, in fact, that several owners will be happy to see their buildings fall consequent to Metrorail work so that they can redevelop their properties. That too is an understandable point of view. In a city where there are no rewards for holding on to heritage, what else can be expected?