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Vol. XXVII No. 18, January 1-15, 2018

Whither heritage conservation?

By The Editor

2 touched

The rusted Munro statue

2017 is drawing to a close. We must be thankful that no major heritage structure caught fire or mysteriously collapsed this year. What was on the verge of collapse in December 2016 remains in the same state a year later. But we have had acts of wanton demolition, as happened with Binny’s head office. But there is a glimmer of hope and this has manifested itself by way of a Government announcement, earlier this month. And so we end 2017 on a positive note.

Apparently, there is now a Building Centre and Conservation Department within the Public Works Department. And this entity has been entrusted the task of restoring three heritage structures in the city – the Humayun Mahal in the Chepauk Palace campus, a section of the Government Press located in George Town, and the office of the Deputy Inspector General, Registration Department. All three structures are now in a state of ruin and the Government has announced that it is allocating funds for their restoration. The projects, it is understood, may take over three years before they reach completion.

This is, however, the same Government that suddenly announced that at Madrasa-e-Azam would make way for a wedding hall, thereby clearly indicating it has no consistent policy when it comes to heritage conservation. It also established one fact – any act of protection or, conversely, demolition, depends of the man/woman on the spot – be it a minister or a bureaucrat. If the person favours protection, the structure will be protected. If not, no. Madrasa-e-Azam has, however, temporarily been granted a reprieve, by the only arm of the State that has so far championed the cause of heritage – the judiciary. A stay has been issued, following a petition challenging the demolition.

It now appears that the Government’s track record on conservation is better than what it is when it comes to private properties. And this is where lack of a clear policy or guidelines is hurting. How can a building like Binny’s be demolished when Court orders prevent such an occurrence? How can Leith Castle be sold to developers as has recently been alleged? How can the Young Men’s Indian Association and the Life Insurance Corporation of India cock a snook at the law by not restoring Gokhale Hall and Bharat Insurance (Kardyll) Building respectively when there is a clear directive from the Court? It is because the Government does not implement the law. In all these cases, there is clear evidence that a private entity or a quasi governmental body (like LIC) can get away with whatever it wants to do. When the Government can on occasion protect buildings that it owns, why cannot it make the private sector do so? Are there other commercial interests involved?

Harking back to the decision to conserve the three buildings listed in the beginning of this article, we would also like to know the modalities of how it is proposed to be done. Will the guidelines be the same as they are for new constructions? Or has the PWD now staff who are qualified to restore heritage structures? If it is the former, it is a cause for concern. Conservation architects have repeatedly raised doubts over the way the Government clubs restoration with modern structures. The two cannot be equated and we need distinct guidelines for each. Does the proposed Building Centre and Conservation Department have the necessary skills? If that is so, we look forward to some really good conservation exercises of which we can justifiably be proud. If not we will have botched attempts as was done in the case of the GPO. Let us, however, hope for the best.

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