This article was written last fortnight and a new government is being sworn in today. The contents are however still relevant.
Election campaigning for the next Tamil Nadu Assembly is in progress and all parties have released their manifestos. While the general trend is one of being bountiful on freebies, most have stuck to their usual ideologies. The fact that not one of them has thought it fit to have a plan for heritage maintenance shows the importance they give this topic. This is a sad, sad state of affairs.
Along with economic prosperity, health and education, heritage is something we need to care about and ensure succeeding generations possess. In the absence of any plan to conserve what is left or to sensitise the public about it, what kind of a legacy do we hope to leave behind?
The last we heard anything on the subject was on May 31, 2012 when the Tamil Nadu State Heritage Commission Act received the Governor’s assent. That we had some kind of legislation at all was something of an achievement. Much of the Act, however, trod familiar ground – the appointment of a Heritage Conservation Committee whose membership and roles and responsibilities were identical to the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that already existed and functioned under the aegis of the CMDA. The newly appointed commission was to begin the exercise of enumeration of heritage buildings in the State, notify them as such and then ensure their preservation. We had even then pointed out that while such an activity was welcome, it was superfluous at least as far as Chennai was concerned for such lists had been done twice over, once by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and again by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee appointed by the High Court of Madras in connection with a case on outdoor advertising in the city. In fact, the latter list was the basis of the recommendation of the High Court of Madras in 2010 for the formation of a Heritage Conservation Committee under the CMDA. And the HCC itself has been working on re-listing that list.
We would have however still been happy had all the points listed been attended to, even if it had been a duplication of effort. However, since the notification of the Act, we have not seen any concrete action – the Committee has not even been appointed in the four years that have since passed! In the meanwhile, the earlier Heritage Conservation Committee, the one under the CMDA, being unsure of its status, has not taken any action. We must point out that this was not in any way a dynamic body even when its mandate was clear.
What of the owners of heritage buildings? They last received letters, from the earlier committee, in 2011, informing them that they could not take up any kind of activity on their properties. Those who wanted to restore what they possessed are unsure of moving ahead, for fear of being penalised for doing so. They are also not certain as to whom to approach for permits and more importantly on guidance for restoration.
Those who want to dispose of their heritage properties are happy that they need not take up any maintenance but are unable to sell as no buyer wants to touch the pieces of real estate chiefly owing to uncertainty on legal status. In passing the Act and not implementing it, the State Government has probably done more harm than good.
In the meanwhile, many heritage edifices are on their last legs – the Madrasa e Azam, the Government Hobart School building and the Harbour police station are but three examples. But with nobody bothered about heritage, what else can be expected but their collapse sooner than later?