The derelict eastern face of King's Barracks, Fort St George
The derelict eastern face of King’s Barracks, Fort St George

At long last there are signs that some long promised action regarding Fort St George will finally materialise. If newspaper reports are to be believed, the Army is finally moving out of the Fort, or at least talking about it in right earnest. With that there should be no impediment to the Archaeological Survey taking over all the buildings that are not in occupation by the Government and Legislature of Tamil Nadu. There will also be a small pocket occupied by the Navy and it is to be hoped that they will follow the example set by the Army. Will all this mean better days for the Fort? Only time will tell.

This is not the first time that the Army has spoken about vacating the Fort. The same statements were made a few years ago, when a secret passage was discovered under the moat. The Army and the ASI had then jointly emphasised the necessity to clean the moat and improve the maintenance of the place, both of which was to be done once the former removed their presence from the Fort. It is however unclear as to how the two actions were in any way related. Subsequent to this, nothing much happened on vacating or cleaning, but the Army made it to the news for the wrong reasons when it began undertaking drilling work near the King’s Barracks. The ASI protested, but the work went ahead.

Now it appears that the Army is serious on vacating the Fort. A recent visit showed that many of the buildings previously in occupation are largely empty. It must also be emphasised that much of what the Army was in possession of, is in a near state of collapse. Several pillars of the King’s Barracks are now completely out of plumb. The doors are no longer in place giving it the impression of being a bombed out building. The ASI will have its task cut out in undertaking the restoration.

It is not as though the ASI has a stellar record in conservation. While Clive Building (ASI HQ) is well-maintained, the agency has allowed several historic structures including Wellesley and the Chaplain’s houses to collapse. Last house on Snob’s Alley is barely standing, supported on steel struts. Conversely, the Army too cannot be accused of neglecting all that it is in charge of. The ECHS Hospital and the Commandant’s HQ are in good condition. In short, there is really no consistent policy on maintenance. All this will have to change if the ASI wants to make an impact.

It is also understood that the ASI would like to initiate regular heritage walks inside the Fort. This is a welcome move. Not so clear is the ASI’s expressed intention to get the Fort declared a world heritage site. This is not exactly an easy task given the formalities involved. For one, the UN, which grants such status, will demand that the Fort be rolled back in its appearance to whatever period that the ASI considers it to be truly representative of. This will involve the demolition of all structures that have come up later than that period. How then can it explain the presence of excrescences such as the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai, which the ASI itself generously permitted the State Government to build by denotifying whatever stood there earlier? And will the State Government so readily accept any such call to demolish the building that it has built at huge cost and renovated at greater expense? None of that is going to be possible. In the meanwhile, let us rejoice at the Army leaving and the possibilities of reviving the Fort with some better maintenance.