There are three reactions to heritage – some love it, and these are most often those who have no stake in it; the second variety is completely indifferent, this is largely the Government that sadly controls most of it; and some would rather wish it away, these are the private property owners who find themselves saddled with something they do not want and, more importantly, something they cannot profit from. Last month saw matters coming to a head at Pallavaram where residents protested against the heritage status that they feel has been imposed on their neighbourhood. A lot can be done by the Government to dispel any fears, but by keeping silent, it is only flaming discontent with heritage being the ultimate victim.

This matter in Pallavaram has been pending for over seven years now. It was in 2007 that plots of land were sold to people, all of them having purchased properties with the intention of developing them for residential purposes. The sale deeds were all registered as per due process. But when the purchasers began making plans to construct houses, they were asked to get No Objection Certificates (NOC) from the ‘appropriate authority’ which in this case is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as the land falls under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act 2010.

The entire area, according to the ASI, is a centrally protected site, with ‘megalithic cairns and cists, showing clear structural postures’. However, as to what this actually implies has not been spelt out clearly by the ASI and the organisation has done precious little by way of actually protecting the place.
The owners on approaching the ASI were informed that the issue of NOCs could be considered only after the ASI conducted a joint survey of the area along with the revenue officials of the Kancheepuram District. A date was fixed for this in 2011 but matters made no headway as the residents, not understanding clearly as to what this implied, protested and prevented the survey from happening. Matters have been hanging fire since then and the residents approached the High Court of Madras, which in March this year ruled that it was necessary for the joint survey to be done. The Court directed the petitioners to file a request before the Collector of Kancheepuram who, on receipt of such a request, was to organise a meeting of the revenue officials and the ASI. This has not happened thus far.

It would appear that the Government is missing a golden opportunity to promote private participation in heritage. What is happening is that the owners are getting increasingly frustrated over the continued stonewalling. What is on the other hand required is a public meeting to be called so that the process of the joint survey and what it proposes to find can be explained to the stakeholders. This is to make the latter a part of the survey, which ought then to be undertaken without delay. The findings of this need to be published immediately thereafter.

What is likely to emerge from this is that not every property owner is sitting on a megalithic cairn or cist. Those that are not affected ought to be allowed to get on with their construction. The affected owners – whose interests need to be met with and their concerns assuaged – can either be offered land elsewhere or they can be permitted to construct on parts of their properties that do not have these remains. Lastly, the entire colony ought to be taught the importance of the pre-historic finds and how they need to be proud of what they possess. The residents can be made a part of a committee that administers these sites and helps promote tourism in the area. Revenues from such activities can be used for improving the locality and maintaining the relics.

All this calls for some enlightened thinking. Can we expect this from our Government – and citizens?