Fort St George: Ruled by ghosts of parties past

What’s the hold that Fort St George has over its leaders that they are unable to break free from the 17th-century building to a more modern headquarters? With the debate on shifting the state Secretariat out of Fort St. George getting revived, the focus is once again on the Omandurar estate
Fort St George: Ruled by ghosts of parties past

Old forts and their resident ghosts are inseparable. Can our own Fort St. George be any different? Claimed to be the oldest fort built by the British East India Company and named after St. George, the patron saint of England, the citadel has weathered many a storm over the past three and half centuries of its existence but has never lost prominence. It’s as if the ghosts of all those who ruled from the fort wouldn’t just let go of their lust for power.

Fort St George in 1858
Fort St George in 1858

If you wonder what the ghosts of Fort St. George have to do with this piece, please check out MP Karti Chidambaram’s tweets on June 4. He has tweeted a letter handed over to Chief Minister MK Stalin requesting him to build a new state-of-the-art Secretariat building reflecting the progress of Tamil Nadu to house the State government. Karti also claimed that the centuries-old fort campus hosts buildings that have insufficient space to host the various government departments and does not have the infrastructure to support state-of-the-art technologies and facilities required for hi-tech offices of ministers and bureaucrats. The Sivaganga MP has also sought the Chief Minister to set up another Secretariat building in Tiruchy where the government could hold assembly sessions alternatively and get closer to the rural public.

With the junior Chidambaram’s open request, the debate on shifting the state Secretariat out of Fort St. George has been revived yet again. In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, just a few days before the MP’s tweet, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu had unveiled a 16 ft bronze statue of former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi at the Omandurar Government Hospital campus in honour of the veteran leader whose government built the multi-storeyed complex to house the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. A few months before that, Congress legislator Rajkumar from Mayiladuthurai urged Chief Minister Stalin to return the Secretariat building to Omandurar Estate during the assembly session.

Statue of Karunanidhi that was inaugurated recently
Statue of Karunanidhi that was inaugurated recently

Omandurar: From Secretariat to hospital

The construction of the Omandurar multi-storey complex spanning over 19 lakh square feet was completed in 2010 and inaugurated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the plaque for which was restored by the Stalin government in September 2021 over a decade later. The late Dravidian stalwart’s construction of the sprawling campus began in 2008 and was completed in around two years, personally supervised by Karunanidhi who was then Chief Minister.

Earlier, MK had announced the construction of the new Secretariat building in 2007 to commemorate his completion of 50 years as a legislator. He was elected to the then Madras State Legislature from the Kulithalai seat in the year 1957. A veteran in TN politics who has won many a battle, Kalaignar could not complete the shifting of the state’s power centre from Fort St. George although several departments had shifted and a few legislative assembly sessions were also held.

After the DMK suffered a crushing defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections, AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, who came to power with a stunning majority, wasted no time in shifting the state Secretariat back to Fort St. George and converted the classy Omandurar building complex into a multi-speciality hospital, which has now played a crucial role in State government handling wave after wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Defending her decision to return the Secretariat to Fort St. George, Jayalalithaa, after returning to power, claimed that work on the Omandurar complex was incomplete and that finishing all pending works would take at least a year only after which all departments could be shifted there. She also cited traffic jams at Anna Salai as a reason for shifting Secretariat back to Fort St. George. Controversy over the design of a dome also delayed the works further. Meanwhile, the building was converted into a multi-speciality hospital and thrown open to the public.

Defending her decision to return the Secretariat to Fort St. George, Jayalalithaa claimed that work on the Omandurar complex was incomplete and that finishing all pending works would take at least a year only after which all departments could be shifted there.

In search of options for Fort St George

Incidentally, when she was Chief Minister between 2001 and 2006, Jaya had also found the buildings at Fort St. George inadequate to house the legislative assembly as well as the expanding state government departments and went around looking for an alternative site to build a state-of-the-art Secretariat in 2003. After scouting for land in and around the Kancheepuram district unsuccessfully, she had zeroed in on the Queen Mary’s College campus but met with stiff opposition from the DMK as well as the student community. She later sought land on the Anna University campus and a few other educational institutions on the outskirts which were also met with stiff resistance. Before she could make any fresh attempts, the AIADMK government lost power in 2006. Known to be a superstitious person, Jayalalithaa probably thought shifting the State government headquarters from Fort St. George was not a good idea and refrained from any such attempt after she came to power in 2011. Even her predecessor and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran had also attempted to shift the TN Secretariat out of Chennai in 1983 during his term as Chief Minister as the city was reeling under a severe water crisis only to give up the project later due to opposition from various quarters, including his party leaders.

The building in 2010
The building in 2010Wikipedia

Failed attempts to shift the state’s power centre out of Fort St. George are almost a century old. According to State records, the first legislative assembly met at the council chambers of Fort St. George in 1921. Back then, it was known as the Madras State Legislature and continued at Fort St. George until 1937. The state Assembly shifted out of the Fort between 1937 and 1939 to the Senate House and the Rajaji Hall only to return in 1946. Between 1952 and 56, the State Assembly again shifted to the Kalaivanar Arangam and was back at the Assembly Chambers in Fort St. George by 1957. But for a brief period in 1959 when it got shifted to Ooty and again after fifty years during 2010-11 when it was held at the new Secretariat Complex in Omandurar Estate, the State Legislative Assembly has always remained at Fort St George. The Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing forced the State government to shift the Assembly sessions to Kalaivanar Arangam recently.

Did you know?
According to State records, the first legislative assembly met at the council chambers of Fort St. George in 1921.

With Karti Chidambaram’s demand for a swank new Secretariat and the DMK government’s unveiling of Kalaignar’s bronze statue, the party cadre has begun the clamour for Stalin to fulfil his father’s dream and restore the state headquarters at the Omandurar Complex and move the multi-speciality hospital to the King Institute Campus in Guindy. Will Stalin succeed in breaking the jinx and shifting the state’s power centre permanently out of Fort St. George? Only time - and the ghosts of Fort St. George (if you do believe in them) - will tell.

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