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Vol. XXVI No. 07, July 16-31, 2016

High Court rescues heritage, again

The Editor

The Law has spoken once again, and it is yet another judgement in favour of heritage conservation. The latest instance is the public interest litigation concerning the Royapuram railway station at present the oldest surviving station in the entire Indian subcontinent. Their Lordships not only refused to countenance its demolition to make way for development of a new station but also suggested that the railways take up modernisation keeping the heritage structure intact.

When this matter was referred to the High Court, we at Madras Musings had wondered if litigation was the only way to save heritage structures. We had stated that repeated recourse to the Law puts conservationists on a confrontation path with respect to those in administration. But we are happy to have been proven wrong. Clearly, if there is at all a saviour of heritage, it is the judicial process. Those who are in the executive, on the other hand, have largely wreaked havoc on our historic structures. And appealing to them does not result in any positive action.

Consider the facts. The DGP Building was saved by the Courts with express instructions given to restore the building and make use of it. True, the Express Estates case went against the conservationists, but even there the Judge observed that this was because there was no law that mandated the protection of built heritage not covered under the Ancient Monuments Act. When it came to the Bharat Insurance Building and the Gokhale Hall, the judgement was most emphatic. Not only did it forbid demolition but it also recommended that the Government set up a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that would go into the merits of protecting 468 heritage buildings. It was thanks to that judgement that the Metro Rail had to give assurances that it would protect heritage structures affected by its drilling activities. It was also because of the same judgement that the Government had to take up the restoration of Chepauk Palace after parts of it were gutted. In the absence of such a verdict, the Government and organisations such as Chennai Metro Rail would have razed buildings with impunity – all in the name of development and progress, of course. Given such an impact of that single judgement it is rather ironic that the two parties against whom it was given – the LIC for Bharat Insurance and the Young Men’s Indian Association for Gokhale Hall, have chosen to appeal against it.

In the Royapuram instance too, it is that judgement that has played an important role. The HCC, despite its somnambulant working style, has actually succeeded in evaluating the historic value of 66 buildings in the city. The Royapuram station happens to be one of them. This has come in handy for the High Court to prevent its demolition. The petitioner had argued that permitting the bringing down of the station would sound the death knell for all other heritage structures and this plea has had its effect.

In retrospect, the Railways’ desire to demolish Royapuram is rather puzzling. This is an organisation that has preserved most of its station buildings, though purists would cavil at the manner in which this is being done. Still, its track record is far better than many other Government ministries, departments and undertakings.

Moreover, in the case of Royapuram, the area owned by the Railways spans a whopping 72 acres of which the station occupies just a fraction. Why then does the Railways want to demolish the structure? The High Court has rightly suggested that any development in the place can happen with the station building remaining intact. Hopefully this should see better counsels prevailing at the Railways and better days for the Royapuram terminus.

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