Sorry for the poor pic – George Town as seen in Swadesamitran, 1930s

If the State and Central Government are to have their way, George Town, the heritage quarter of our city, is likely to soon be a thing of the past. On the anvil is a plan for the complete redevelopment of the space, including the creation of, hold your breath, a logistics park or a hub to cater to the financial and legal industry. The Government has opted to make a virtue out of every one of George Town’s weaknesses, all of which came about owing to prolonged neglect and apathy. The idea is laughable in the extreme and dangerous too, for it aims to destroy the cultural fabric of the space. But that the powers-that-be do not consider it to be so is quite clear from the recent pronouncements.

The area it has been announced, will be redeveloped with funds from the Centre’s Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). It will be recalled here that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority has already been contemplating the redevelopment of the area based on the guidelines framed by the Justice Rajeswaran Committee, which looked into the conditions required for granting amnesty to buildings that have violated regulations. George Town it was found, was filled with structures that deviated from the rules, the Commissioner of the Corporation stating that as much as 99 per cent of the buildings here were put up in contravention of the laws.
Now this is being made the basis for the proposed redevelopment. The area it is argued has so many buildings that are faulty that the only way out is a new plan. The question is, why did the civic body and the planning authority look the other way when all these violations were going on? Are all the builders and the officials who collaborated with them to be allowed to go scot-free? And are we not in reality rewarding them with fresh construction opportunities?

It is quite clear that the Government has no plans to rejuvenate George Town keeping its heritage character in mind. On the anvil are plans to invite consultants and go about the process in the same way in which the City’s Master Plan is usually developed. Unfortunately, George Town is somewhat different – it is not one of those 20th Century housing colonies that follow modern layouts. The entire area came up in the 17th and 18th Centuries when motorised transport was unheard of and most people walked. The streets are narrow and they define the area’s character, as do the many old buildings that still survive here. These latter open on to the street, with no setbacks or parking spaces. Many, unless they were built as commercial structures, serve dual purposes – as shops on the ground floor and residences on the first. There are unique construction styles and techniques here that allow for ventilation and light, despite the crowding together of buildings. To allow for modern high rise here, and this is something that has been going on surreptitiously for quite some time now, is nothing short of foolishness. The infrastructure of the place is already stretched and if it now were to have multi-storey buildings it will push water and sewage requirements beyond all capacity.

At the same time it is to be recognised that the residents cannot be denied their right to good quality of living. This, given the years of neglect, has to be a slow process if the character of the area is to be preserved. People need to be made to appreciate sustainable models of living and the benefits of conservation. Nobody, including the administration, has time or the political will for that. Hence this rush to modernise, at all cost.