How would you classify the beach road aka Kamaraj Salai? Well kept is what we would consider it. A broad walkway on one side that affords a wonderful view of the sea and, beyond it, the harbour, and, on the other, a slightly narrower footpath, walking on which you get a close look at some of the best heritage buildings in the city. Yet, our Government, no matter who is in power, considers this not enough and wastes enormous sums in unnecessary additions to the beach, none of which would strictly qualify as beautification. This is nothing but a waste of public money that could be spent elsewhere.

In the past, we have railed (mostly fruitlessly, we must admit) about the rockery, the artificial fountain and the gazebo. Now we see yet another useless activity in progress – demolition of the compound wall of all the buildings on the western side, to be replaced by identical replicas. Now this would have been a commendable plan had the original wall been weak or was maintained poorly. But such was not the case. The common compound wall featuring squat pillars at intervals, each bearing a bronze rosette, had been laid at the beginning of the last century and had survived more or less intact. It is true that in some places the pillars had sunk below road level but all that had to be done was to extract them and put them up on new foundations. This could have been achieved at a fraction of the current planned expense of Rs. 33 crore.

But that was not acceptable to our city’s civic fathers. New granite pillars had to replace the old ones and all of them had to be redone. What is forgotten in all this is that heritage conservation is not just replacing old designs with replicas; we need to reuse the older material as well. That has been completely overlooked in the present case.

What is worse is that the replacement has been embarked upon without the consent of the stakeholders – namely the twelve Government institutions along that stretch of the road. This became evident when letters were delivered to all of them intimating them about the proposed work. The University of Madras has rejected the idea claiming that its compound wall forms a part of its heritage and so cannot be tampered with by any other agency. Given that this institution has a middling record at best when it comes to preserving its heritage, this comes as a bit of a pleasant surprise. Sources aver that the University was keen on protecting the sesquicentennial commemorative arch (another unnecessary addition and not in keeping with the prevalent architecture in the area) unveiled in 2013 and came up with this imaginative reply.

In the event, it would appear that the University is the odd man out. Even its former constituent, Presidency College, has consented to the change as have all the other institutions on the road. But given that the University is probably the biggest landowner along this stretch, it makes you wonder as to what price the Corporation’s plan for a uniform compound wall if the university doesn’t agree.

As of now, the Corporation has begun demolition of the compound walls of the rest of the buildings. It has announced that it will be completing the new compound wall by June this year.

Also on the anvil is the paving of the footpath along the wall with granite, so that it matches the walkway on the eastern side. Considering that this stretch is the favourite for all those wanting to erect banners, flex boards and hoardings to impress VIPs who pass by, it is anybody’s guess as to how long the granite paving will last. But by then it will be time for another beautification anyway.

This article appeared in the Madras Musings issue dated May 1, 2015