Not all buildings are as lucky as Ripon Building for which the Corporation is investing Rs.7.70 crore

Chennai, like many cities, is Janus-faced, with one head looking to the past and the other to the future. As much as it imagines itself to be a global city, it also stakes claim to its long history with pride. Alongside high-tech activities, rich music festivals are showcased. However, when it comes to built heritage, the investment in steel and chrome future is more visible while care for its heritage structures has just made a slow and belated beginning.

The gleaming white Ripon Building is one of Chennai’s icons and the seat of its 360-year-old civic body. The history and importance have been well inscribed in books, but if the structure does not endure, there would not be much left to show of this past. Realising the need to conserve, the Chennai Corporation has now decided to invest Rs.7.70 crore and commissioned a conservation specialist to restore Ripon Building. When completed, it will be the first non-monumental heritage structure to be comprehensively restored by the local body. This will be followed with the restoration of the Victoria Public Hall at a cost of Rs. 3.36 crore.

Not all heritage buildings in the city are as lucky as Ripon Building. While structures declared as monuments like the Fort St. George are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the old civic and residential buildings that are still in use are vulnerable.

Structures such as Bentinck building and Moore Market have been lost for good and buildings such as Bharat Insurance are under threat of demolition. It took a hard legal fight to save the DIG building complex near the beach. In the meanwhile, numerous old residential houses have disappeared unnoticed.

Neither the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) nor the Corporation has an estimate or inventory of old buildings. A few years ago, a partial draft list with less than 200 buildings was published by the CMDA but was not pursued. The only inventory that is available is the one prepared by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Tamil Nadu Chapter.

This estimate of INTACH shows that more than 600 heritage structures exist and the numbers could swell many fold when the survey of the city and the area around it is concluded.

“The available list of around 200 structures is not comprehensive,” said Susan Mathew, Vice-Chairperson of the CMDA.”A committee constituted by the CMDA would meet next month to decide on the preparation of inventory of heritage buildings,” she said. The CMDA has planned to complete the list and notify buildings in a year.

S.Suresh and INTACH, of which he is the State convener, have been trying hard to provide a correct figure and the present status of built heritage in Chennai. “We are collaborating with the CMDA to evolve a strategy and with suitable measures to protect the city’s heritage.”

As one of the largest owners of heritage structures, much is expected of the government. About 30 major heritage buildings are under the Public Works Department (PWD-Buildings). Some of them include Madras Medical College, Presidency College, Government College of Fine Arts, Raj Bhavan and Government Maternity Hospital.

While the PWD is well-versed in methods of repairing new buildings, they have not acquired enough expertise in dealing with heritage buildings. “PWD staff would be provided with sufficient training and would learn about specifications, techniques and costing of conservation projects” said the officials.

Though there are considerable number of staff to execute work, funds are insufficient. The current contracting and tendering system too are not encouraging. The PWD plans to make a good beginning by creating a committee comprising of officials, archaeological and heritage specialists to conduct joint inspections before estimates of conservation works are prepared.

The tough part of the task ahead is in finding ways to protect privately owned residential and commercial buildings. At the moment, there is no legal framework to prevent their demolition or wholesale change. For more than a decade, attempts were made to bring heritage legislation. A Bill was drafted some years ago and in principle accepted by the government. But nothing further has come out of it.

The second master plan has introduced provisions for protecting heritage buildings, but it is yet to take effect since groundwork such as listing have not been evolved.

Owners of residential buildings understandably complain that declaring their property as heritage structure prevents them from developing it and would cause financial loss. At the moment, there are not any financial incentives such as exemption from property tax to compensate.

Responding to this, the heritage experts and officials at the CMDA think that the introduction of Transferable Development Rights (TDR) in the second master plan would compensate the loss of development rights.

For example, if an old 2,000-sq.ft independent house is declared as a heritage structure and the owner is prevented from constructing, say a 10,000-sq.ft apartment building, then he or she can claim 8,000 sq.ft of TDR that can be used in another property over and above what is permitted there or sell it to a developer to be used elsewhere. This, the experts hope, will provide the much-needed fillip to heritage conservation in Chennai.

(With inputs from A.Srivathsan, Deepa H Ramakrishnan, K.Lakshmi and Aloysius Xavier Lopez)

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