An early photo of the PWD office, Madras

It was only a month ago that we carried the story about how the Government had in its budget decided to sanction money for the restoration of three heritage buildings – Victoria Hostel, Queen Mary’s College and the Kumbakonam Government Arts College. We had rejoiced at this sudden change of attitude towards heritage. It is only now that we know that an announcement to this effect does not mean an automatic release of funds. Apparently that can take till eternity.

A news report dated April 7, 2018 carried the full details. The Public Works Department (PWD) is eagerly awaiting funds to the tune of around Rs 100 crore for the restoration of 25 heritage buildings spread across the entire State. The Building Centre and Conservation Division of the PWD (yes there does exist such an entity) has completed detailed project reports for all these structures and has submitted them to the authorities, after which it has heard nothing about them.

On the anvil are such prestigious restorations as the Humayun Mahal of the Chepauk Palace, now a mere shell with much of its interiors in a state of collapse for several years. This will cost around Rs 38 crore and needs immediate attention. Also of urgency is the restoration of the Government Press in the Mint. The oldest buildings there have already been destroyed by fire. The office of the Deputy Inspector General of Registration, on Rajaji Salai, has long been identified for restoration, but here too there is no action. And in a delicious twist, the PWD finds that its own historic premises on the Marina need urgent attention to the tune of Rs 17 crore, but has no money for it. Last seen, despite a seemingly solid exterior, the building was crying out for maintenance. Much of its priceless stained glass has been replaced by plastic.

If this be the situation in Madras, the condition of buildings upcountry is said to be far worse. Structures as far afield as Pudukkottai and Nagapattinam await funds.
The Government in our view is being short-sighted in the extreme. Surely sanctioning of Rs 100 crore is nothing for it given that that value appears to be the lowest denomination that it sanctions for anything and everything in its annual budgets. It should also realise that most of these proposals for restoration are time-bound and any delay will only push up the costs. What is the value of a cost estimation if execution is taken up a few years after it was prepared?

There is also another aspect that the Government needs to consider. Delays in restoration projects invariably mean that some other macro-level development nullifies whatever little is done. Take, for instance, the renovation of VP Hall and Ripon Building, both of which cost a tidy sum of money. The Government dithered for years and then, just as work began, the Metrorail stepped in. As a result, work on VP Hall had to be given up and as for Ripon Building, it is full of (structural) cracks.

There is another aspect to it all – how serious is the Government about actual restoration? Perhaps it is not and all that it wants is the goodwill that is generated by such announcements. In this era of social media, it is the optics that count and all that seem to matter, be it in Delhi or at State level. Those not wishing to attribute such diabolic thoughts to our Government can take solace in these intentions to restore heritage. Action may be a long while in coming.