Two Churches in Broadway, several houses along the way, the Law College Buildings, a couple of heritage structures on Mount Road…the list of victims of the Metrorail is long and rather illustrious. The latest now to join this select club is Ripon Building, the 102-year-old heritage structure that is home to the Corporation of Chennai.

Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony
Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony

The story has been the same in all cases. As the drilling works of the Metrorail progress, old buildings along the way develop cracks. The residents are alarmed, the newspapers report the matter, the structures are evacuated; a team from Chennai Metrorail visits the site and then claims it is not responsible for the damage.

IIT Madras is called in to submit a report that is never made public, the cracks are given a temporary fix and then the drilling continues to progress. Surely by now, with such a pattern emerging, the authorities should know that some precautionary steps need to be taken when tunnelling for the Metro happens in the vicinity of a heritage building.

The experience with Ripon Building has been no different. Even as drilling, tunnelling and excavating happen in its vicinity, the edifice has begun developing cracks. These were first reported a month ago and since then they have continued to widen. It must be remembered that the entire structure rests on a series of terracotta wells for its foundation, all of them filled with rock rubble. If these are disturbed by the work in progress, such cracks are bound to happen.

A team from Metrorail has since visited the place and IIT Madras has been asked to prepare a report. This has probably been submitted, but has not been made available to the Corporation, which therefore remains in the dark as to what has caused the fissures and what needs to be done next. In the meanwhile, the cracks have caused much fear and excitement among the staff in the premises, with the ensuing discussions presumably resulting in less work happening at the civic body’s office than usual.

It will be laughable if Metrorail claims that the Ripon Building cracks are not due to the ongoing tunnelling work. The edifice is still in the midst of a Rs. 27 Crore restoration activity that has been ongoing for over five years now. If there was indeed a different cause for the damage that has now surfaced, surely the team of architects and conservation experts in attendance would have noticed it and reported it by now. The responsibility for the latest issue is clearly with Chennai Metro and it needs to do something about it.
What is amazing is the sheer lack of concern and the willingness to arrive at a lasting solution for this problem despite such a track record. Added to this is the sheer lack of transparency in the process of finding a solution, assuming that there is such an effort. What is currently in place is surely, merely a cover-up operation with no doubt the hope that people will forget the issue after a while. And then, there is always the winning argument – such losses have to be sustained in the name of development and progress.
Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency within the Corporation itself. With a spanking new annexe having been completed, most of the offices have probably shifted there or will soon do so. This will result in Ripon Building being left as it is, and the pressure to do anything quick will diminish. The Corporation’s home will join a long list of public buildings that are now deemed structurally unsafe.