The Madras GPO, hideously 'restored' by the PWD
The Madras GPO, hideously ‘restored’ by the PWD

It has taken the Government of Tamil Nadu four years to get going on the Heritage Act that it passed. At long last, a Heritage Conservation Commission (HCC) was formed – the second of its kind and on the fate of the first there is no clarity. The composition of the proposed new HCC is at present disappointingly full of Government representatives and nominees from State institutions and undertakings. And not surprisingly, after the initial inclusion, the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)/Tamil Nadu has now decided to withdraw the invitation. This is an imbalance that needs to be set right if the HCC is to be a meaningful organisation.

The Government’s dislike of INTACH, Chennai/Tamil Nadu, has a long history. Each time one of our public buildings has been threatened with demolition, with an eager administration clearing the decks for it, it is INTACH that has stood in the way. It has been the lone voice for heritage, pointing out that the structures declared to be weak are not really so and pointing out that these edifices possess historical significance and architectural features that make them worthy of preservation. More often than not, INTACH has had to seek the intervention of the Courts, and though in many cases it has lost, it cannot be denied that it has won a few. More importantly, it has ensured that the argument for preservation of heritage has been heard.

It was also litigation concerning heritage structures such as Bharat Insurance Building and Gokhale Hall initiated by INTACH that brought about the first judgement, in 2010, -ordering a listing of heritage buildings in the city and taking steps by way of a Heritage Conservation Committee to protect them. The CMDA set about forming such an HCC, which peopled as it was with a majority of Government appointees, moved very slowly. Here again, it was INTACH that was the sole voice of independent thought and this was not in line with the views of officialdom’s members.

The eviction of the INTACH member from the HCC became a simple task following the case against the demolition of the P. Orr & Sons building annexe to make way for Metro Rail. We do agree that INTACH’s initiation of such a litigation was not perhaps the best decision, especially as it was neither the owner of the property and nor was it fully aware of the background history concerning possession of the space. INTACH lost the case, but there is no denying, with all due respect to the Court, that the judgement was unduly harsh. Not only did it impose a huge fine on INTACH, which was subsequently reduced by the -Supreme Court, it also ordered the removal of INTACH from all Government projects of conservation/restoration. Thereafter, with INTACH having gone, the HCC became a somnambulant organisation, hardly ever convening meetings and doing precious little to protect the city’s heritage.

The TN Heritage Act of 2012 mandated the formation of a second HCC, but now an amendment to the Act seeks to withdraw the invitation on the grounds that Art and Culture are already represented. This is a pity as all restoration work ongoing in the State has just the Public Works Department in charge of them. That is a body not known for its expertise in conservation and even the High Court, whose restoration after consultations with INTACH, is being done by the PWD, has expressed unhappiness over the way matters have progressed there.
Perhaps it is time for INTACH to approach the High Court and seek a pardon of some kind. Any reasonable judge will see merit in the case and allow for leniency. After all, INTACH has been allowed to conduct heritage walks in the High Court premises for over two years now and that should be a good beginning to establish a working relationship.