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Should Metro run on rubble of history?

Special Correspondent
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once upon a time P. Orr & Sons, dating back to 1849, moved to the current premises in 1873. — Photo: the Hindu archives
once upon a time P. Orr & Sons, dating back to 1849, moved to the current premises in 1873. — Photo: the Hindu archives

There can be no argument on Metro Rail being a much-needed solution to the traffic problems of Chennai. It is a mammoth project that will change the face of the city as we know it. In such circumstances, it is necessary that all stakeholders are taken into confidence thereby making the change as painless as possible.

In the current situation however, it appears that our city's heritage will be the biggest casualty. And definitely, heritage is an important stakeholder though it does not have much of a voice. Some of the best known landmarks of the city are going to be impacted for certain; while others are likely to make way either in full or in part.

The city's heritage structures presently have a modicum of protection afforded by a judgement concerning Bharat Insurance Building, a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture at its celebratory best. The owners, LIC, decided to demolish this edifice and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) challenged this in court — a recourse that the latter has taken in several other instances with varying degrees of success.

In this particular case Justice Prabha Sridevan, in April 2010, ordered that the building had to be preserved. While simultaneously disposing off related petitions, the judgement also included a list of 400-odd buildings that it deemed as heritage structures which needed to be preserved. For this, the Court took as its basis a compilation done by a Committee under Justice E. Padmanabhan. The judgement also directed the Government to form a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) comprising experts on the subject from within and outside the Government, who would go into the merits of each building and proceed with the notification of the entire list.

After almost two years of existence, the HCC has not inspected the buildings in the Court's list, notification being a far-away dream. In the interim, the only action that has been taken is a letter addressed to most of the heritage property owners that they cannot demolish or alter their buildings. In the absence of any positive recommendation in the letter, most heritage property owners have come to view their possessions as liabilities and some have gone ahead with demolitions.

Chennai Metro Rail has put up barricades within two feet of heritage buildings in some places. At others (P. Orr & Sons, Bharat Insurance Buildings and the Lawrence Asylum Press behind Poompuhar), creative interpretations of what is heritage and what is not have been made. As a result, substantial portions of the building face the danger of being demolished, leaving behind only a cardboard façade. This is in violation of the Padmanabhan Committee report, wherein no demolition, alteration or defacement of any part of a building listed as Grade 1 can be done. And definitely buildings such as P. Orr & Sons and Bharat Insurance fall under that category.

In certain other places, huge exhaust vents and other structures are being planned (Victoria Public Hall and Ripon Buildings being two), completely blocking off the view of these structures. This is rather ironic considering that the HCC bases its mandate on a list of heritage buildings whose exteriors could not be hidden behind hoardings leave alone permanent structures such as vents and staircases!

There is no public display of station plans and layouts with details of how it will affect the neighbourhood. No pubic discussions were held. The citizens who are kept in dark agree that Chennai needs a proper traffic solution, but ask does it have to be at the expense of its heritage?

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