The story of the historic Law College building, headquarters of the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Law University, gets more and more messy by the day.
For those who came in late, here is a quick recap: Ever since Chennai Metrorail began drilling work at less than 1.5 feet from the building, conservationists have protested and predicted that the building would crumble. Work went ahead nevertheless and now the PWD has sent a letter to the University demanding the campus be vacated as the structure is in a precarious condition. Before any action could be taken, the students have begun protesting against the move, though with what motive is not very clear. Last heard, the matter has taken a political twist with one of the Opposition parties throwing its weight behind the students. What of the heritage building in the meanwhile? Nobody seems to care about it.
If they had, matters would not have come to such a pass. In the first place, Metrorail ought to have never been permitted to commence drilling so close to the main building. It is reliably learnt that when the Heritage Conservation Committee discussed the matter in 2011, some members did object but they were overruled. Work then began with predictable results. A finial first collapsed and Metrorail strenuously denied having anything to with it. A couple of months ago, as reported by us, the PWD sent a letter stating that the building is in a very weak condition. It has accused Metrorail of causing the damage and also covering up the signs of stress with some patchwork. Why permit drilling in close proximity and then create a hue and cry about the resultant damage?
Which brings us to the next question. Is the building really weak? We have only the PWD’s word for it. While we are not accusing the Department of any wrong assessment, it would be better if some independent agency such as the IIT was asked to do a study. This is chiefly because the PWD has in the past been very quick in declaring buildings unsafe. For that matter so have the CMDA and the Corporation of Chennai. In many cases, such conclusions have been found to be faulty by independent assessors whose evaluations have been held up by the courts of law. We need to only draw our readers’ attention to the DGP building on the Marina, which the PWD certified as worthy of demolition only to have a committee appointed by the High Court overturn it, thereby paving the way for a complete restoration. What if everyone had gone along with the PWD?
We must also keep in mind that the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee report of 2006 had stated that the condition of the building was good and that the foundations rest on stone concrete, going down to a depth of three metres. We are no experts, but is it likely that such a building could have become weak in a matter of eight years? The vibrations caused by the Metro, of course, need to be taken into consideration but is it a case of the PWD being very quick in condemning the building? Next, even assuming that the building is weak, what exactly does the PWD propose to do about it? It has in the past few years done nothing about similar structures in an ‘enfeebled condition’ beyond putting up notice boards all around them. If that is all that it plans to do with the Law College, is it perhaps not better to keep it in use thereby allowing for routine maintenance, which will also be cut off once the building is shut down?
At this stage, rumours are also flying thick and fast that Chennai Metrorail is in need of land in the area to put up stations. There is, of course, probably no truth in this but it only adds to the uncertainty. In the meanwhile, watch this space for fresh developments.
You may want to read the following stories on Chennai Metrorail and its impact on our heritage buildings: