At long last, the city’s civic body appears to have woken up to the fact that none of its engineers is trained in heritage conservation. This wisdom, though belated, is to be commended. And it is to be hoped that will lead to correction and, consequently, the presence of a trained corps that will in future be able to take on tasks of enumeration, evaluation and conservation of heritage buildings within the city.
This thinking was followed up with quick action when the Corporation recently had over 80 of its engineers attend a three-day workshop on built-heritage conservation specially organised by INTACH-Chennai with experts from the city, Delhi and Bangalore offering the participants a wealth of insights into both the theoretical and practical aspects of conservation, supported by site visits. These engineers, thus, had an exposure to the technical knowledge necessary to save old buildings as well as sensitisation on the unique architecture of the city, whatever that is left of it that is. The Mayor attended the valedictory session, which is a good indicator of the importance that was attached to the programme, and promised support to more such training programmes.
While this step of the Corporation is indeed a most welcome initiative, it is to be hoped that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Public Works Department (PWD) will follow this lead and work together with INTACH-Chennai on similar programmes, as much of the heritage of this city is also under the control of these two departments. The CMDA holds the key to decisions on demolition of public heritage buildings, especially those that stand in the way of development projects, through the role that could be played by its Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). This largely dormant body has, thankfully, controlled the Metro Rail’s tendency to largely steamroll its way over heritage. For instance, some positive action has been taken by the HCC when it came to the eventual decision to protect the RSRM Choultry from demolition. Similarly, the HCC has also ensured that proposed stations near heritage buildings are not designed to dwarf their surroundings.
Nevertheless, one of the greatest failures of the HCC, and therefore of the CMDA, has been the inability to come out with a comprehensive list of heritage buildings in the city which can then be notified. Though a fresh listing is most unnecessary, given that the High Court of Madras has furnished the CMDA with what was put together by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee on hoardings, the CMDA has been insisting on preparing a list of its own. That it has failed despite seven years having passed is chiefly because it has no trained personnel to take on this activity. It may be best that the task is entrusted to the Corporation’s Junior Engineers (JEs), now that they have been through the recent heritage awareness programme. These JEs, given that they are attached to wards, will be able to list what is in their localities and then a comprehensive list can be made with the inputs received from them.
As for the PWD, it still controls all restoration activities in Government buildings. Given that it has no trained personnel for such special tasks, it continues to put out specifications for heritage restoration on the same lines as modern buildings. The consequence is that budgets are completely out of touch with reality – you cannot restore a wooden doorway that is 100 years old at the same cost as a modern glass one with aluminium beading. Yet that is exactly what is expected of contractors, resulting in most of them shying away from such tasks leading to buildings languishing without restoration. Things have changed somewhat recently, with the long postponed Chepauk Palace renovation expected to be on different lines — but that has not yet moved beyond the planning stage.
It is therefore to be hoped that such heritage awareness programmes are taken up soon by the CMDA and the PWD, teaming with experts in the field. Training Corporation engineers and officials alone will have limited impact. It is nevertheless a step in the right direction and will hopefully have a beneficial effect on heritage conservation in the city.