Chennai’s heritage monuments losing out to development projects

The role of Archaeological Survey of India in protecting Chennai's heritage monuments is in focus with the proposal to shift Hynmers' Obelisk.

The proposed letter from the building committee of the High Court of Madras to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), asking the latter to consider shifting Hynmers’ Obelisk from its present location, has brought into sharp focus the role of the ASI when it comes to protecting monuments that are under its control. Will it stand up to its mandate or simply give in is the question. We sincerely hope it will be the former option.

Little protection for monuments

As per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, it is forbidden to take up any construction activity within 100 meters in all directions of the limits of a protected monument or site. Given the congestion in most of our metros, historic monuments are fighting a losing battle. The blue board of the ASI offers very little protection. Most ancient monuments have been encroached upon, often with new constructions even sharing a wall or two with them.

Also read: Photos: Exploring Chennai’s forgotten heritage in Chintadripet

Entire colonies have come up in historic precincts and the ASI has been toothless in ­implementing its 100 m law. It has most often taken cover under the excuse that the violations have been in place even prior to 1958, which again is not true.

At the Hynmers’ Obelisk, even though the High Court is formally seeking removal of the structure owing to the 100m law, it must be pointed out that the hostels of the erstwhile Law College premises practically hem the monument from three sides. And these are not pre-1958 constructions.

Government and private owners culpable

The worst violators are of course the private owners and developers whose properties abut heritage precincts. The Government fares marginally better because it at least makes a pretence of seeking permission – thus when Namakkal Kavignar Maligai had to be built, the Government approached the ASI to denotify the buildings at Portuguese Square, Fort St George and the latter gladly did it, to allow for historic structures at the place to be demolished and make way for high rise.

Last House Fort St George
Last House is now in ruins, with the approach covered by a forest. Pic: Sriram V

In other parts of the Fort, the ASI itself has willfully neglected buildings under its control and allowed them to collapse. In certain cases, such as the Powney Vault in the Law College campus, the ASI maintains that the structure still exists while reality seems to be otherwise.

Then we have the famed battle that is ongoing at Pallavaram where the local property-holders are at loggerheads with the ASI as they have been denied the right to build over Paleolithic burial sites. That other agencies of the Government have been willing to legally register the sale of such properties is another matter altogether!

Read more: From Victoria Public Hall to College of Fine Arts — who will save our heritage buildings?

High Court the last resort for protecting monuments

The Hynmers’ Obelisk may seem a relic of the British Raj but its proposed removal needs to be looked at from a broader perspective. Offering the space for a multi-level car park would mean deep excavations and pile foundations, all of which will only impact the already fragile Law College building, which developed over 200 cracks following Metrorail work, necessitating the shift of the college to a new campus.

The High Court has now been offered the college building for its expansion which itself a decision of doubtful merit – a precinct that has been historic as an educational space cannot simply be handed over to become offices of other kinds. What of its great past and the responsibility to continue with the mandate of being a place of learning?

The High Court also needs to debate on whether it wants to surround itself with modern high rise – most of our city’s heritage structures have vanished from view owing to such thoughtless construction. Should the High Court, which has of late been setting a trend when it comes to good heritage conservation, now take the opposite route? Most certainly not.

To all heritage conservationists in Tamil Nadu the High Court has been the institution of last resort and if the proposed new construction were to go ahead it would be a great let down of cherished values.

[This story was first published on Madras Musings. It has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.]

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