Losing a landmark?

NO SOONER did the State Government announce its decision to pull down the Queen Mary's College (for the construction of a new Secretariat complex) than the NGOs, student groups and political parties nailed their colours to the "Save QMC" mast. With each passing day, more and more organisations are going hammer and tongs at the Government's decision to expose the campus to bulldozers.

Shankar, district secretary, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), says, "Proprieties such as seeking public opinion were thrown to the winds; the decision (to demolish QMC) was taken without any public debate.

As the first women's college in Chennai, it is a symbol of women's emancipation. And also considering its architectural value, the attempt to pull it down in such a cavalier manner is audacious."

Bharath Jairaj of the CAG (Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group) says the decision "is arbitrary. The Government and its wings are operating sub rosa; there are enough reasons to believe that they are moving the goalposts in order to achieve their purpose. We are told that the Government has asked the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) to amend the Development Control Rules (DCR) of the Chennai Metropolitan Area for construction of multi-storey buildings along the Marina and, in the same breath, refused an amendment (proposed by the CMDA) to the DCR for protection of heritage buildings. Interestingly, the QMC precinct appears in the draft list of heritage buildings prepared by the Heritage Committee of CMDA." "The decision smacks of an unrestrained use of authority. To act as if decisions such as this (where to move the Secretariat) are impervious to public debate, shows an undemocratic style of governance," says U. Vasuki, general secretary, All-India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), Tamil Nadu.

"We first launched a campaign to `save higher education'; the next one was to "save Government colleges"; and now we have launched a campaign to "save Government college buildings'," says S. Ganesan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Government Collegiate Teachers' Association (TNGCTA). "The college is located among many buildings that are in the mould of Indo-Saracenic architecture. They add to the Marina's beauty. Construction of a Secretariat complex will make the Marina out of bounds for the common man; and it will also mean a violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone norms which do not allow for high-rise buildings in the vicinity of the shoreline."

"The argument for pulling down QMC is untenable on two counts. One, the Government says it is grappling with a shoestring budget; and citing paucity of funds, the Madras University has raised its fees. Given this situation, does it not strike an odd note that the Government is willing to pump crores of rupees into construction of a new Secretariat complex and a new college (for QMC students). Two, in the last 30 years, not one Government college has been constructed in Chennai. Given such a track record, how can we believe that the new college will be built in a year's time as promised by the Government," asks G. Selva, president, Students Federation of India (SFI).

"The move to build the Secretariat complex is the thin end of the wedge. It will ultimately result in the marginalisation of certain sections around the Marina, such as the fisher-folks."

Losing a landmark?

"QMC caters for students from the underprivileged families. Most of them are first-generation college-goers who come from moffusil areas," says S. Ganesan.

"By opposing this move, we are scoring not just for `education', but for `women's education'. We will be espousing the cause of the `subaltern' sections of our society, as many of the girls studying in the college are from the MBC/SC communities. The college also has a good number of handicapped girls," says Vasuki.

"The Government has to give up its obdurate stand and explore the possibility of building the Secretariat complex elsewhere. The MGR Film City may be a good place for the new Secretariat," opines S. Ganesan.

"Why not the MLAs' hostel on Wallajah Road?" asks Selva.

"QMC is part of the architectural splendour on the south Beach Road. Every architectural period finds representation on this road. Pentland House, Stone House and Jeypore House (within the QMC campus) are emblematic of vintage architecture spanning the period 1915-21. Built in the classic style (it may seem colonial to us), they are landmarks in the evolution of the city's architecture. It will be a pity if we lose these buildings," says Prema Kasturi of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Tamil Nadu Regional Chapter. "In the 1980s, the management of the Women's Christian College decided to pull down one of its old buildings - Doveton - for development reasons. The teaching staff and students were reproachful of the move. There was a campaign (led by Ammu Mathew, head of the department of physics; and Vera Augustus, head of the department of history) against the decision.

The campaign spread like wildfire and soon the attention of the media and the public was drawn to it. Thanks to their support, the demolition move was shot down. The building was restored, not pulled down."

There, probably, are many who will take heart from this anecdote.