What does the Corporation achieve by continually changing street names?

A street name that has been around for centuries becomes an integral part of local history; changing it for cosmetic reasons or short term posturing serves little purpose, writes blogger and historian V Sriram.

The Corporation of Greater Chennai falls back on certain repeat activities whenever it finds time hanging heavy on its hands. One is the beautification of the Marina and the other is the renaming of roads that commemorate the colonial masters. The latest to suffer from this are Montieth and Fraser’s Bridge Roads, which are to now become Red Cross and Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission Roads respectively.

William Montieth entered the Madras Engineers in 1809, became Lt Col in 1826 and Lt Gen in 1854. Fraser’s Bridge gets its name from John Fraser who designed the municipal waterworks. Not undistinguished names certainly, one working for the army and the other ensuring water supply. Both noble professions. And certainly, these men can at best be local heroes, which means once their names are removed, they stand forgotten. This is not likely with the Red Cross and the TNPSC, both of which are very well known institutions that really do not need commemoration by way of street names.

There is also the question of tampering with local history. A street name that has been around for two hundred years lends a certain gravitas and character to a place. A colonial name in Egmore or George Town speaks of the area’s colonial history. What imagery does naming after the Red Cross or TNPSC evoke? Generations in future may just assume that these streets had no history before these two institutions came to occupy them.

The next question: What happens when TNPSC and Red Cross move out of these roads? Will the new locations be named after them too? Will that not cause problems of multiple roads having the same name?

As it is, Chennai suffers from having the same political heroes lending their names to road after road, colony after colony, and place after place. A short survey of the Eicher Map reveals  72 roads/colonies/areas named after Annadurai. Kamaraj has 74 and Ambedkar 57. If these are new creations and those who occupy them genuinely want these names nobody can object. But what is the purpose in renaming existing roads? Why cannot newer areas of the city sport these names?

The timing and the process followed in the present name change too are not correct. An elected council is not yet in place. The polls are imminent. A name change is to be ratified by the Corporation council and then passed on to the Legislative Assembly which, too, has to approve it. In the present instance, the Special Officer has simply arrogated to himself to change the name.

Officialdom may quote precedent from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s when the Special Officer in charge of the Corporation authorised changes in name. But there was no Corporation council functioning then, the civic body having been suspended following the muster roll scandal. That example does not hold good now.

Lastly, do the residents of the streets thus renamed not have any say in the matter? Both Montieth and Fraser’s Bridge roads have a number of residents other than the Red Cross and TNPSC. Have they been consulted? It does not appear to be so.

It is high time our civic body begins focusing on matters beyond the cosmetic. It could clean up Fraser’s Bridge Road, at present a filthy stretch. It is also time for it to bury this renaming activity for good. No earthly purpose is served by such activities. Changing Madras to Chennai achieved nothing beyond some short-lived parochial posturing. The city has not improved in any way since. Changing street names is going to mean even less. It is only the local resident who will have to go through the pain of notifying banks, couriers and others of a change in address details.

[This post was first published on the writer’s blog, Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music, and has been republished with permission.]

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