For years, Central Station, along with its neighbours, the Southern Railway headquarters, the VP Hall and Ripon Building, was a landmark of our city, a part of a handsome skyline, visible all along that stretch of Poonamallee High Road. But that joy may not be ours for much longer. Chennai Metrorail Limited (CMRL) now plans a 33-storey commercial structure just opposite, on land that it acquired from the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry. With this what ought to qualify as a heritage area will have a monstrosity sticking out like a sore thumb. Not that such considerations are going to weigh much with the CMRL.
For the past few years, Chennai Metrorail has paid scant attention to damage that it has caused to heritage structures in the city. The list is long and has been carried so many times in Madras Musings it does not bear repetition. Suffice it to say that in most cases, CMRL has chosen to undertake drilling activities in close proximity to heritage structures despite warnings from experts. And there have been significant damages. Each time such damages have been reported, these have been brushed aside stating that such occurrences need to be borne with resignation for the sake of development. That is strictly not an argument that can hold water. Development necessarily has to carry with it the interests of all stakeholders and heritage too happens to be one.
CMRL will now have to embark on getting approvals from many agencies and that includes the Airports Authority as a building of such a height does not exist in the city. More importantly, it will have to seek a go-ahead from the Heritage Conservation Committee of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). This body, not exactly known for its dynamism, will have to view the request in the light of the High Court’s judgement that, based on the Padmanabhan Committee report, clearly forbids blocking of heritage structures with permanent or temporary constructions. A 33-storey building will undoubtedly do just that. But will the HCC of the CMDA take a hard look at the proposal? Peopled as it is by just personnel from Government departments and ministries, it is quite likely that the Committee will yield to pressure. It has been known for flexibility in that respect, always in detriment to heritage.
As to what CMRL wants with such a monstrosity in such a crowded area is possibly clear only to those working within it. Does a metro service really need such a large administrative building? Moreover, parts of it are to be leased out for commercial development as well. This happens to be one of the most congested parts of the city. Such a large building, with its attendant footprint, will only add to the chaos. Emergency measures, not something for which Chennai is best known, will have to be doubly stringent here.
The land in question was acquired after some litigation from the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry. At the time of the verdict, CMRL had committed that it would preserve the Choultry in its entirety. That is now open to question too. How can a single storey structure ‘survive’ if it is to be dwarfed entirely by a 33storey building? Will it even be visible?
It is now entirely up to the HCC of the CMDA to ensure that some serious thought is given and such an idea is firmly nipped in the bud. But will it do so? We hope it will prove wrong the scepticism of Madras Musings and stop the CMRL’s mindless project in its tracks.