The govt.’s indecisiveness has led to Chennai’s historical buildings falling apart

The city has lost one more heritage building – Humayun Mahal to delays, indecisiveness, the Public Works Department’s (PWD) outdated methods and the lack of a trained workforce.

Last year, after the 245-year-old Kalas Mahal fronting the Marina Beach was destroyed in a fire, there was a flurry of activity: the PWD commissioned a conservation architect to restore the structure and the government promised to constitute an empowered heritage commission to look at heritage issues. Not much has happened since then.

Had the conservation work commenced earlier, the damage to Humayun Mahal, another heritage structure nearby and in the same campus of the PWD, could have been prevented. Two days ago, part of the ceiling of this Mahal collapsed.

PWD sources said the department was in the process of forming an expert committee comprising heritage architects and planners from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority to inspect and decide about the restoration of Humayun Mahal.

Kalas Mahal too, underwent a similar process, but the project has not progressed. After an expert committee inspected the structure, the PWD decided to restore it and commissioned a conservation architect. Based on a quick survey, the architect drafted a preliminary proposal for about Rs. 16 crore. But the proposal has been pending for more than 10 months.

The Hindu has reliably learnt that attempts to discuss the project about three months ago did not materialise since the PWD had not decided about the approach.

The department has neither signed an agreement with the architect nor issued a work order. However, PWD officials said they recently floated tenders to conserve Kalas Mahal, and work would begin after selecting a contractor.

PWD officials also explained that “conserving and maintaining heritage structures require a separate procedure and more funds. It would cost at least twice or thrice more than what is spent on maintaining other buildings. This too, delays the process of conservation.”

K. Kalpana, a conservation architect thinks otherwise. She said, “The existing methods of the PWD are unsuitable for special work such as building conservation. Unless the PWD innovates, works out a new schedule of rates and empanels conservation architects and contractors, it cannot move forward.”

Another issue that has led to the delay is the lack of government engineers who are specialised in heritage conservation. The PWD, in the past, briefly attempted to train existing engineers in conservation, but could not continue that in a sustained manner. Neither has it set up a special heritage cell with outside experts. As a result, the PWD is indecisive and uncertain about assessing and restoring heritage structures.

PWD officials said the heritage cell was still in the process of formation. It cites workforce shortage as the main reason for the delay. “We expect engineers to be recruited soon, and that will solve the problem,” an official explained.

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