One year after the city turned 375, it is time for celebrations once again. Attaining that landmark age this year is Fort St George, as the first fortified enclosure there was completed on April 23, 1640, St George’s Day. This is the core from which our city grew. And much of the practices and institutions of modern India grew thereafter. Such a venerable precinct deserves a proper commemoration for reaching this milestone in terms of age, though whether anyone in authority is planning that appears very doubtful. But we at Madras Musings are not going to let this year go by in such a tame fashion.
Regular readers of this publication have responded enthusiastically to the series that we carried over much of last year on certain forgotten/hidden/lost landmarks of our city. Encouraged by this, we have become somewhat ambitious. We plan a 26-part series on Fort St George, wherein each issue of Madras Musings, now in its 25th year, will carry a detailed story on one historic structure/landmark/feature of the Fort. Through this effort we plan to not only highlight the history of the Fort, something that every Chennaiite ought to be proud of, but also draw attention to its present condition. This is our small tribute to our historic landmark.
What prevents the authorities that are in charge of the Fort from doing something for it? Multiple ownership claims, with plenty of rights and largely no responsibility towards maintenance are the main reasons. Various parts of the Fort are controlled by various agencies – the Tamil Nadu Government and Secretariat, the Assembly, the Army, the Navy and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Ideally speaking, such a historic enclave ought to be entirely under the control of the last named body, at least as far as maintenance and structural modifications are concerned, but then nothing in India is so simple. Not that entrusting anything to the ASI would automatically mean proper maintenance. As we proceed on this detailed study of the Fort, we will be able to show you plenty of ASI-controlled areas that deserve much better upkeep. And once again, before the ASI takes offence at that statement, let us assure it that the other agencies in the Fort are no paragons either when it comes to heritage conservation and protection. Certainly, the first impression that any casual visitor gets is that much of the Fort has been made over to the elements.
The Fort is also a victim of a shocking lack of awareness about its historicity among the people who function from there. To them it is yet another Government office space that is meant for day-to-day use. As a consequence, you have in the Fort every undesirable feature of any Government-controlled space. A couple of weeks ago we sent a letter to the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, highlighting these flagrant violations of heritage norms (not that we have any) – uncontrolled and haphazard parking of Government vehicles, rampant construction and demolition activity, erection of makeshift structures, mushrooming of canteens and toilets, absence of specific garbage disposal areas, putting up of posters and banners, and in one specific area an informal bazaar where you can buy anything from flowers to plastic goods.
All this is an indication of a complete lack of vision. While we hear of efforts being made to attract tourists to the city, it is indeed a pity that its historic core, a precinct most sought after by visitors, should be so neglected. There is plenty that can be done to make it a vibrant orientation centre for visitors, a first port of call on their tour itinerary. We trust that our year-long effort will help in bringing about this awareness.
But, meanwhile, here is a toast to our Fort and here’s wishing it many centuries of glorious existence and many more contributions to the country.