In the slew of schemes announced by the State Government just prior to the electoral code of conduct finally clamping a lid is a proposal to build a Rs 257 Crore oceanarium on 13 acres of land in Mamallapuram. Though the description of what is planned claims that this will be a site that will have a healthy mix of academic and commercial interests, a detailed study of the features indicates that whoever thought this up had only the latter in mind. The question is, does Mamallapuram, a world heritage site, really need this development?
On the anvil is an amusement park of sorts – a winding acrylic tunnel through which visitors can walk into the seabed and enjoy views in all directions, a restaurant to seat 60, a commercial food court, scooter and bump-a-car rides, and of course a musical fountain without which no public amusement facility is considered complete in Tamil Nadu. A nod to the academic side is a lecture room where educational films on marine life will be shown. In this era of YouTube, do we really need this? And it is not as though the Government is expecting any increase in tourist footfalls because of this project. As per its study, around one third of the visitors to Mamallapuram are expected to drop in at the Oceanarium.
It would be a matter of interest to look at how many other world heritage sites in India have something like this in the vicinity. Not one. There are also stringent rules and regulations imposed by the UNESCO on what can or cannot come up around such locations. There is an additional danger – the world heritage status can be withdrawn if unplanned constructions are put up. In a recent episode, the Karnataka Government had to move heaven and earth to convince UNESCO of the necessity of a bridge across the Tungabhadra after the world heritage status of Hampi was declared to be under review because of this.
Does Mamallapuram really need such a facility? While not in any way questioning the Government’s decision, surely some other location can be thought of. A modern oceanarium is completely out of place in a site that has monuments dating back to the times of the Pallavas. As it is, there are enough and more amusement parks on the road from Chennai to Mamallapuram, and it is said that not one is really doing great business. So what is the guarantee that this new development, and a Government-run one at that, will do any better? If the experience of the Madras Aquarium is anything to go by, we can confidently predict what is likely to be the outcome.
Lastly, perhaps it would have been better if the Government had allocated this money to improve the conditions of its existing ‘public amusement facilities’. From the boating jetty in the mangroves off Chidambaram to the lake at Pulicat, not one spot has any restroom that can be used by visitors. The waste disposal facilities are primitive to the extreme, resulting in a rapid increase in the filth surrounding these areas. All of these sites were developed as part of high profile schemes, the inaugurations were with much fanfare and lots of promises were held out. Once the projects reached completion, no thought has been given to their maintenance. Thus far, all such facilities have been touted as world class and not one has really come close to that in reality. Why then waste money on something that nobody has ever felt the need of?