The continuing deep tunnelling work by Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) in the George Town area has claimed yet another heritage building as its victim – the historic Law College. A recent letter from the Public Works Department addressed to the Principal of the College has said that its mean building is now structurally unsafe and poses a grave threat to students and faculty alike. It stated that the building needs to be vacated immediately. What is of greater concern is that it has, in the same letter, accused Metro Rail authorities of concealing the damage by means of some short-term plastering work. This has thrown into doubt the various claims made by CMRL of having taken concerns regarding heritage seriously while it went about its work.

That the Law College building has become unsafe has probably taken only the PWD by surprise. It was evident to any layman that this would soon come to pass. As pointed out in this publication over two years ago, barricades for CMRL work had come up within five feet of the structure. The Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) had made note of this and also commented on the proposed alignment of stations with regard to the Law College building. While the latter was taken into consideration and changes were made accordingly, what was not altered was the position of the barricades. Work continued nevertheless. A finial from one of the domes fell a year ago. CMRL promptly denied that its work had anything to do with this. But the latest developments have proven beyond doubt that the deep tunnelling work has been steadily weakening the building.

The PWD letter, which it has put together after a joint study along with the HCC, has noted that the roof has cracks on a north-south alignment which it attributes to vibrations caused by drilling. It has expressed concern over how such thick “jally lime concrete” could break up this way. It has also pointed out that several arches and key stones have shifted from their original positions, thereby making the entire building unstable. The PWD has expressed its inability to assess the exact nature of damage as the building is in occupation and has called for vacating the premises immediately.

What follows in the report is even worse. The PWD has accused CMRL of attempting to hide the extent of damage by concealing several cracks in the core of the building with cement plaster. It has said that this kind of slapdash work does not benefit anyone, as new cracks are bound to appear if the exact extent of damage is not assessed. Matters rest here for the time being, with the onus now being on the College to find new premises, which is not going to be easy.

The CMRL in its defence has said that it has been keeping a watch on heritage buildings along its routes and has been taking up repair activities as and when needed. It cites the ‘restoration’ it has done at the two Broadway churches – the CSI Tucker and the Arcot Lutheran – that it undertook following reports of cracks and water seepage after tunnelling work in that area. But if that restoration was nothing more than covering the cracks with cement, as has happened in the case of the Law College building, it may not serve any purpose.

The problem is that CMRL has not taken into confidence any qualified conservation specialist when it came to problems of this kind. The PWD too is no expert on such matters. And as for the HCC, while its involvement in the present problem is commendable, it is too slow and bureaucratic to do anything much beyond writing reports and filing them. There are, of course, no heritage laws to protect such buildings.

With this, the Law College structure joins a long list of ‘structurally unstable buildings that await restoration’. The others include the National Gallery, the Bharat Insurance Building, the Gokhale Hall, Chepauk Palace and the Madrasa-e-Azam. None of these has seen any restoration activity by its owners and, if anything, these edifices have only weakened further with passage of time. Will that be the fate of the Law College building also?

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