Editorial: Turning around a narrative of neglect

There are hurdles pertaining to the availability of skilled labour and materials as well as focussed political will. It’s all the more important for the metro as about 10% of the heritage buildings here are in a dilapidated state.
Editorial: Turning around a narrative of neglect
File photo

Chennai: Tamil Nadu, which is blessed with a history spanning thousands of years and is replete with some of the most spectacular heritage sites in India, suffers from the affliction of neglect when it comes to the upkeep of these priceless artefacts. Last week, in the backdrop of World Heritage Day, the Madras High Court admonished the State government, specifically, the Mamallapuram Town Panchayat for its failure to manage garbage disposal in the historical site.

A first bench of the MHC did not mince its words when it asked whether tourists arriving at the world heritage sites in Mamallapuram should pay a fee for entering a pool of garbage. The Court has asked the Panchayat officials what are the mechanisms employed by the government body for disposal of garbage as well as the manner in which the resorts in the area are taking care of their waste. The PIL regarding the alarming levels of garbage accumulation near a residential area in Mamallapuram, home to UNESCO heritage sites, is a reminder of lip-service-like attitude in matters of historical importance.

Architectural upkeep is just one aspect to be tackled. There are even challenges when one considers how shoddy our responses are, and how hackneyed our approaches are to such activities. Last year, citizens and activists in Chennai had expressed their dismay upon the refurbishment of the age-old Mint Clock Tower in Old Washermanpet. The 60-feet-tall tower which is a proud vestige of the city’s iconic art deco architecture was defaced by a garish episode of repainting that saw its facade being coloured in shades of cyan, blue, pink and yellow. This is a far cry from the soft beige and tan shades that have been emblematic of this clock tower, a defacement that was likened by heritage enthusiasts as robbing the site of architectural authenticity.

A need for a concentrated effort from the government, vis-a-vis policy or legislative level support as well as monetisation options are being felt with regard to the upkeep of heritage sites. There are hurdles pertaining to the availability of skilled labour and materials as well as focussed political will. It’s all the more important for the metro as about 10% of the heritage buildings here are in a dilapidated state. The absence of a financial incentive for owners or caretakers of private buildings that fall within heritage regions of the city is also a sore point.

What’s troubling is that the State has the Tamil Nadu Heritage Protection Act which was drafted on the lines of West Bengal’s legislation for the same. However, the Act has not been implemented in letter and spirit. As per the CMDA, one of the bodies that remain defunct includes the Heritage Conservation Committee, which is toothless in the absence of the heritage repair fund. At present, there is a need for a policy regarding the Transfer of Development Rights for restoring heritage structures.

The local administration is waking up to the idea of restoring many heritage sites in Chennai, for which a separate budget has also been set aside. About 35 heritage structures which fall under the PWD’s ambit will be restored, for which a sum of Rs 150 cr has been allocated. The PWD also has the tall order of maintaining about 85 registered public buildings. The government’s efforts to revamp the Chepauk Palace, the Ripon building as well as the Victoria Hall are also commendable. With help from public agencies and private parties as well, there is a strong case for us to turn a narrative of neglect around and make our heritage truly count.

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