The Tamil Nadu government's inexplicable delay in extending legal protective measures to heritage structures has cost the State yet another landmark building. A substantial portion of the century old P. Orr and Sons building in Chennai, home to the earliest watch ‘manufacturing' firm in South India, will be demolished to make way for an ancillary structure of a Metro railway station. A petition to prevent this demolition — filed by the Chennai chapter of INTACH — was dismissed by the Madras High Court on Wednesday. Of the issues raised by this case and the judgment, one with a larger import is the absence of legal protection for heritage structures. While the rest of the world recognises the value historic buildings bring to a city's culture and even economy, policymakers in India simply don't get it. Often, only monuments such as palaces and religious structures are officially recognised as legacy structures and conserved, leaving out a host of other buildings which are no less significant in historical and architectural terms. No amount of public protest can prevent the bulldozer since, at the end of the day, when the agitation to save these vulnerable and venerable buildings reaches the courts, it is only the point of law that prevails. Though legislation is not the only way to protect heritage, without it, our valuable structures cannot effectively be conserved.
Not all State governments move on leaden feet. States such as Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh quickly realised the importance of heritage and adopted a variety of legal measures to safeguard them. West Bengal enacted a comprehensive Heritage Commission Act, which covers the entire State, and creates an institutional arrangement to identify heritage buildings and recommend measures to protect them. In addition, individual local bodies, such as the Kolkata Municipal Corporation have amended their respective Acts to constitute a Heritage Conservation Committee with the Municipal Commissioner as its head. Mumbai was the first city in India to legally notify heritage buildings as early as 1995. Such measures have made a vast difference to conservation efforts. The objective of these measures is not to prohibit the use of old buildings, but creatively to manage changes without losing the heritage value. This is not impossible to achieve. London, which is one of the largest modern cities in the world with more than 18,000 heritage buildings and 155 monuments, is a case in point. The Tamil Nadu government, without any further delay, should put in place a comprehensive legal framework that will be effective State wide, and also empower local bodies to protect all extant, precious old structures.