Of 600-odd heritage monuments and sites, only around 50 enjoy some form of protection and preservation

Even as the city celebrates the Madras High Court's 150th anniversary, there are a number of other structures of heritage value that cry for some attention and a little care.

Of 600-odd heritage monuments and sites indentified as existing physical reminders of the city's past by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), only around 50 enjoy some form of protection and preservation.

Conservationists say that it has been 15 years since a consultation process was initiated by the Town and Country Planning Department to frame a Heritage Act. It was supposed to offer a legal framework for safeguarding monuments. A draft bill is yet to be formulated.

In the meantime, historic buildings such as the General Post Office (GPO) have been ravaged by fire and cyclonic winds. A section of the roof collapsed during rain recently. Other structures such as the Chepauk Palace and the Victoria Students' Hostel also suffer from lack of maintenance and repair.

Preservation

Critiquing the CMDA and its Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC), Historian S. Muhiah said that nothing has been done by the committee apart from examining a couple of threatened buildings and getting some listing work started. “If the HCC had been doing its job, perhaps what happened at the GPO might not have happened.”

He added that though there is still a bit of Madras left in Chennai, “we definitely are not preserving it well.”

Monsingh D.Devadas, Dean, School of Architecture and Planning and member of the CMDA's Heritage Conservation Committee, said that each heritage structure has a unique character and preserving the building alone is not sufficient. “Even the open spaces surrounding the building, the greenery and the ambience add to the character.”

He pointed to examples of pre-Colonialagraharamhouses in Mylapore, some of which have been well-preserved, but the streets in front of the houses or the vicinity have been taken over by modern structures. “We have to move beyond looking at a heritage building in isolation. There are a number of roads in Georgetown, Mylapore and Alandur which can be delineated as heritage streets.”

Tourist spots

One economic benefit of holding on to a cultural past is the revenue from tourism. When a whole street or zone is designated as a heritage area, it immediately becomes a tourist attraction, and restoration activities could then be financed using the revenue, Mr.Devadas said. This is the model that has been adopted in most developed countries.

Stressing that the city's past and future need to co-exist, he said that upcoming largescale infrastructure projects such as the Metro Rail and Monorail need to ensure that their elevated structures do no dominate the skyline in the vicinity of heritage buildings.

“What is the point of preservation if a building cannot be appreciated from a distance? A growing city requires development projects. But it should never be at the cost of our past,” he added.

Based on modifications suggested by the HCC recently, the Chennai Metro Rail Limited submitted revised drawings to ensure that the visibility and impact of Metro Rail structures is minimal in the vicinity of heritage buildings, said S.Krishnamoorthy, Chief General Manager-PR, CMRL.

The work on documentation of the heritage structures in the old Chennai Corporation limits is under way. Ten teams of architecture students have been formed by the CMDA for documentation of the heritage structures. Most of the teams have submitted photographs and data pertaining to the heritage structures to it.

However, the lack of awareness on the part of owners of private buildings that have been provisionally identified as heritage structures has led to a sense of fear among the owners, said an official of CMDA.

“We are making efforts to have a right balance between conservation of heritage structures and urban development,” said R.Venkatesan, CMDA Member Secretary.

Inadequate documentation

At present the High Court order prevents demolition and redevelopment of heritage buildings listed in 2008 by the Justice E.Padmanabhan Committee. The list of Justice E.Padmanabhan Committee is not supported by proper documentation.

Even after the constitution of the Heritage Conservation Committee, a comprehensive documentation of the heritage buildings has not been readied in the city. The documentation is expected to be ready in two months, said CMDA officials.

The CMDA has recently rejected planning permission for re-construction of private heritage buildings on the list. This has fuelled a sense of panic among some of the private owners of heritage buildings.

“Many private owners did not allow student volunteers sent by the CMDA to their premises for documentation of the heritage buildings,” said an official of CMDA.

As the documentation of private heritage buildings is being delayed on account of reluctance of the owners, the CMDA is also considering the release of all government heritage buildings as a first step.

Discussions with other departments such as the Public Works Department would begin soon.

Sources in PWD said a heritage wing of the PWD, which was formed two years ago, could not be sustained owing to poor fund allocation and administrative difficulties. It was originally formed to maintain government buildings across the State, including around 30 buildings of heritage value in the city.

With the documentation by the CMDA likely to be ready this New Year, the government may have to tackle the rising fear among private heritage building owners, conservation of notified heritage structures and identification of funding options for restoration.

(With inputs from Aloysius Xavier Lopez, Ajai Sreevatsan and K. Lakshmi)

What they say

S. Suresh, archeologist and convener of INTACH, TN Chapter:Each city has its own distinct historical character and cultural identity. That identity would vanish if the architectural heritage is wiped out. Though conservative estimates put the number of heritage buildings in the city at over 600, only around 50 are protected. Many of them are being lost due to sheer neglect and indifference. Unless all segments of the city cooperate, we risk losing whatever remains of our heritage.

Fr. P.J. Lawrence Raj, Parish Priest of St.Teresa Church, Nungambakkam: Heritage buildings are part and parcel of the historical, cultural and spiritual heritage. In our country, where heritage buildings form part of the religious fabric, many such buildings are places of worship. This situation calls for sympathetic understanding on the part of the CMDA, the Heritage Conservation Committee and authorities concerned while considering proposals for expanding or renovating such buildings.

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