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Chennai still awaits Heritage Act

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SAVED: The 138-year-old Bharat Insurance building on Anna Salai, which escaped demolition, after an intervention by the Madras High Court.
SAVED: The 138-year-old Bharat Insurance building on Anna Salai, which escaped demolition, after an intervention by the Madras High Court.

Vani Doraisamy

Conservationists are fighting for the Act for over a decade

CHENNAI: Chennai turned 368 on Wednesday and is reliving its heritage with a passion. The momentum generated by the celebrations has rekindled the debate on the need to have a Heritage Act to protect historic sites, something which conservationists have been fighting for over a decade.

That two other metros — New Delhi and Mumbai — and even neighbouring Hyderabad have comprehensive heritage regulations is being set against the lack of an enabling atmosphere in Chennai.

“There has been no serious thought given to conservation at a policy level till now,” says P.T. Krishnan, convenor, Indian National Trust for Architectural and Cultural Heritage. “The conflicting demands of commercial development and the lack of political will are the reasons.”

Draft of Act

Historian S. Muthiah recalls a consultation initiated by the Town and Country Planning Department 12 years ago, resulting in a Heritage Act draft, along guidelines suggested by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. When the draft was forwarded to the Government, it was suggested instead that the CMDA regulations could incorporate appropriate regulations. In consultation with the CMDA, another set of draft regulations were readied about five years ago. Then, the Queen Mary’s College controversy erupted, and all else was forgotten.

Though the CMDA’s draft second master plan does incorporate a set of regulations regarding heritage buildings, there has been no inventorising, conservationists say. Though there are possibly about 1,500 buildings in the city that are heritage class, no official list is available, especially for those structures that do not fall under the national monuments covered by the Centre’s Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

Hyderabad has beaten Chennai in the heritage stakes, conservationists say, with the passing of the Andhra Pradesh Ancient & Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites & Remains Act, 1960. Under the Act, any monument can be notified in the gazette and after weighing objections, be declared a protected monument. The liability for maintenance falls upon the government. Public-private partnerships are also enabled. Defacing or vandalising any of the 43 protected monuments is deemed a cognisable offence, and invites a jail sentence or a Rs. 5,000 fine.

But Chennai has not caught on. With the example of the Senate House restoration behind them, conservationists say getting funds for heritage preservation is not daunting anymore, with corporates willing to pitch in. One among them is Tata Consultancy Services. “We will gladly involve ourselves in such activities as it part of our responsibility to enhance the city’s cultural capability,” says CEO and managing director S. Ramadorai.

Legislative intervention is only part of the battle won. According to Shanti Pappu, secretary, Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, “Conservation efforts have to be proactively designed to involve the local community in every way and make the entire exercise economically beneficial to them.”

For conservationists, the Madras Week is a small but firm step in reminding the government of its responsibility.

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