The government is facing a serious dilemma on how to deal with a large number of century-old buildings in the town in which hundreds of people reside under constant fear, particularly during monsoon. Several government buildings and residential houses in the boulevard and nearby streets were built during the French regime.

Government buildings such as, Marie, V.O.C. Boys Higher Secondary School, Calve College and Pensonnait De Jevnne Filles have suffered structural damage. In the recent rain, a portion of the ceiling of the Marie building collapsed, creating panic among the 300-odd employees.

Officials in the Public Works Department said these buildings are beyond repair as they had suffered serious structural damage beyond the limits of restoration work. The PWD has apprised the government on the need to replace all the four buildings with new ones. However, because of restrictions imposed by the Indian Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) the government has not given permission for construction of new buildings, he said.

“Even if restoration works are carried out, there is no guarantee that their existence can be extended. Restoration work also needs a huge amount of money,” a senior PWD official said.

Pointing out to the opposition raised by INTACH in demolishing heritage buildings, he said the new buildings can be given the original look. “In fact, we told the government that the same design can be given to the buildings,” he said.

As far as residential houses were concerned, the owners who were financially sound would like to retain the building by maintaining them. On the other hand, those who are not having the resources were in a Catch-22 situation. Many of them are in a predicament whether to go for a new house leaving behind the emotional attachment towards the heritage property, because of the maintenance cost.

The house Usha lives in has great significance to heritage, as it is the house Sri Aurobindo stayed in on his arrival in Puducherry. The maintenance of the structure, however, is tough, she admits. “It is a beautiful 125-year-old house. But it brings its set of problems,” she says. “It is made of limestone, owing to which there is a lot of water seepage. There are a very few masons who work with limestone now, and so all the patchwork has to be done with cement. Paint does not stay on these damp walls at all. We were advised to fix wall tiles to avoid water seepage and wall cracks, but some of the tiles have cracked. The wooden ceiling has had to be replaced in many parts of the house too,” she says. She spends around Rs.1 lakh every year for repair works

“Building a new house would definitely cost lesser than the upkeep of an old house like ours. There are also other problems. In many houses, one wall is shared. And this wall often cannot be repaired even when problems such as seepage or cracks occur, because it would lead to dispute with the neighbour, Balaji, a resident of Vysial Street, said.

But there are also those who are willing to spend on maintaining these houses. “I would not raze this ancestral home to the ground to build a new one,” says Prabhakaran, owner of a beautiful house on Kamatchi Amman Koil Street.

According to the professor and head of civil engineering department, Pondicherry Engineering College, S. Kothandaraman, unreinforced/masonry structures are brittle in nature. As heritage buildings are masonry structures, repairing measures should be in a holistic manner, rather part by part, he insisted.

There is extensive damage in Marie Building on Beach Road, which houses the Puducherry Municipality. “The northeast part of the building is getting separated from the main structure. One more monsoon, and the side will not exist,” he states.

“We have already strengthened the foundation of the building. Almost a-year-and-a-half ago, we strengthened the northeast corner of the sub-soil with micro piles or else the soil will not resist the heavy weight of the building. But now, the time is out for restoring the building and it is in a bad shape,” Mr. Kothandaraman said.

Similarly, buildings such as the Calve College and V.O.C. Government Boys Higher Secondary School in Mission Street are in need of immediate attention.

With Puducherry falling in Zone-III of seismic zone, upgrading buildings accordingly is of utmost importance, according to experts. “Every old building falls in the red category and we should ensure safety by upgrading it to the present requirements,” Mr. Kothandaraman said.

Co-convenor of INTACH, Puducherry, Ajit Koujalgi differed on the argument that most of the heritage buildings were unsafe. “There are 1,150 declared heritage buildings in the boulevard. If they are properly maintained, like annual pre-monsoon preventive care to ensure that the rainwater down pipes are not blocked and there are no leaking pipes that cause settlement cracks, then the buildings can survive for generations,” he said.

Noting that traditional technology can be used to restore these buildings, he believed that 99 per cent of all buildings — new or old — are not designed for seismic loads. “So are we going to demolish all these buildings and reconstruct? Why single out heritage buildings alone? Traditional structures with their thick walls and roof are able to counter the bobbing effect of earthquake waves much better than semi-rigid structures with their thin walls,” he said.

Demolishing a heritage structure and constructing a new one in the original style is not heritage preservation, he said, adding, “Many well-maintained heritage buildings in Puducherry, such as the Hotel de l’Orient, are more than 200 years old. Many proposals were submitted for the V.O.C. School but the government has not moved on it.”