Chennai would do well to learn a lesson or two in heritage conservation from the town in its own backyard, namely Puducherry. The latter has launched major Government-supported heritage initiatives in the last month or so. In a scenario where Chennai’s administration has done precious little in this direction, it is to be hoped that someone in power does look at what is happening elsewhere.
Towards the end of last month, the Puducherry Government listed and notified 21 buildings that it owns in the French and Tamil quarters of the city as worthy of preservation. With this, that city joins a select group of Indian metros that have notified some of their structures as heritage buildings. Chennai is not one of them. The heritage movement in Puducherry is far younger to its counterpart in Chennai and yet it appears to have notched up a singular achievement.
A noteworthy feature of the struggle to conserve heritage in Puducherry appears to be that the Government there is willing to listen to champions of heritage. This despite the fact that the former came in for widespread criticism from the latter for allowing the historic Mairie building to collapse in torrential rains a few months ago. The Government of Puducherry has viewed the episode as a learning moment and roped in conservationists to prevent other such structures from going the same way. The reconstruction of the Mairie is also being planned, in collaboration with the Puducherry chapter of the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The PWD has also begun the restoration of some buildings in Puducherry with the help of INTACH.
One of the reasons for this attitude of cooperation is the Puducherry Government’s understanding that a bulk of the city’s revenues comes from tourism. That is not the case with Chennai where with a vast industrial base and medical tourism income, heritage tourism gets the back seat. There has also been a history of confrontation between conservationists and the Government here, beginning with the attempt by the latter to demolish the Directorate General of Police building in the 1980s. Government officers have frankly expressed a disinclination to work with heritage enthusiasts in Chennai and the matter is at a deadlock.
The listing at Puducherry has been done with coordination between INTACH and the State Level Heritage Conservation and Advisory Committee (SLHCAC), which is an advisory body with no legal or statutory powers. Compare this with the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) in our State, which is also similar in character but chooses not to justify its existence in any way. The Puducherry team has produced a list of 21 buildings within six months of the Mairie’s collapse. The HCC was given a ready-made list of 468 structures by the High Court of Madras and is yet to take action on listing any of them. It has decided to embark on a fresh listing of buildings, a wholly superfluous exercise, and is taking forever in doing even that. In the meanwhile, at least sixteen buildings, nominally protected by the High Court’s listing, have already vanished and so we are staring at a list of 452. Several more are in an enfeebled state and may soon collapse or make way for highrises. In the light of all this inaction, the recent decision by the State Government to illuminate some heritage buildings during the Global Investors’ Meet seems nothing more than lip service to the cause of conservation. Will the Tamil Nadu State Government study the Puducherry model and take action?