Will Chepauk Palace survive? That is the question foremost in the minds of all conservationists. In January 2012, one wing of the precinct – Khalsa Mahal – was gutted in a fire. Now, a portion of the other wing, Humayun Mahal, has collapsed. Sadly, those in charge appear clueless on what needs to be done. Given the state of the buildings, can we afford such lethargy and ignorance?

The Khalsa Mahal fire could have taken everyone by surprise though, given the volume of stacked files, broken furniture and exposed wiring, it was a sure-fire recipe for such an occurrence. But surely the Humayun Mahal collapse was something that everyone knew was coming sooner than later. A part of the building had already had a roof collapse and yet, as we reported in this publication then, Government departments were carrying on with their routine work regardless, all around the crater left behind by the fallen roof! It speaks volumes of the indifference with which our bureaucracy functions – it extends the same insensitivity to its working environment as well.

The Public Works Department (PWD) was quick to cover its tracks following the second and more recent roof collapse. It said that it had already issued warnings to the Government departments in occupation that the building was in an enfeebled condition and could fall any time. It implied by this that it had done all that was in its capacity and if the departments did not vacate it was their fault. But is the issuance of a quit notice the only action that the PWD ought to have taken when faced with a heritage structure that is facing collapse?

And yet apparently that is quite true, for the PWD has more or less admitted that it has no idea as to how to save a heritage building. This confession came to light when sections of the press raised a question as to why nothing had been done on Khalsa Mahal almost two years after it was burned, with even the debris continuing to remain on site. To this the PWD has responded stating that there is considerable uncertainty on the procedures that are to be followed for restoration.

The truth is, there is none. The PWD’s tendering systems are all very clearly focussed towards new construction, with its rates being well defined for items such as vitrified tiles, plastic sheets and plate glass. Which is why the PWD is more comfortable demolishing old buildings and putting up modern structures in their place. Reconstructing an edifice like Chepauk Palace is a new experience for the PWD and it has no experts on board to take up the task. And there is the bureaucratic reluctance to consult with experts outside the purview of Government. It is no wonder then that Khalsa Mahal continues to languish. Humayun Mahal will now be providing it company.

It was last heard in June 2012 that the Government was wanting to make the restoration of Chepauk Palace an example of how heritage conservation was to be done. It invited ‘expressions of interest’ from conservation architects wishing to work on Khalsa Mahal. It was also understood that the Government would be happy to get the restoration done on rates and methods that were not those of the PWD’s. This indicated that the Government was willing to consider that heritage conservation cannot be on the same lines as new construction. But what has happened since then is a mystery, for there is complete silence. It is reliably learnt that there was no response to the invitation of interest, as the terms were difficult to comply with. What then is to happen to Chepauk Palace? The mystery continues. Watch this space for more news.