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Vol. XXXI No. 5, June 16-31, 2021

Déjà vu on Tamil Nadu Heritage

by The Editor

Matters have come full circle as far as the State’s management of its heritage is concerned. Last week the High Court pulled up the TN Government for its masterly inactivity in this regard and directed it to form a Heritage Commission comprising among others ‘historians, archaeologists and anthropologists.’ This will be the advisory body to a newly constituted Mamallapuram World Heritage Management Authority. To those of us who have been following the (in)actions of the Government when it comes to heritage, all this sounds dreadfully familiar. After all, this will be the third such Heritage Commission to be formed and like its illustrious predecessors, it will be able to do very little.

But before we go into that, we must bring our readers abreast with what necessitated this pronouncement by the High Court. A letter to The Hindu dated Jan 8, 2015 had lamented about the pitiable condition of a tomb in Kanyakumari district for the renovation of which the 12th Finance Commission had allotted Rs 38 lakhs. The question was not the money the correspondent wrote, but the sheer inability of the State Archaeology Department (SAD) and the Public Works Department (PWD) to execute such renovation. And given the number of structures under the ASI and the SAD, it is very unlikely that they will be able to pay due attention to any. The Court took suo motu notice of this and following a public interest litigation that lasted till this year, issued a series of 75 directives to the State Government chiefly concerning temples and other heritage structures.

One among these is the directive regarding the formation of the Heritage Commission. The first such order came from the court in 2010 (eleven years ago) and the Commission came under the purview of the CMDA. Its mandate was to look into the heritage buildings in the city. The body which was so formed was conveniently populated with members from Government departments and institutions run by the state. The only outsider was a lone representative from the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage. The decisions of the commission were therefore a foregone conclusion. Several heritage buildings were allowed to be demolished and despite the Court giving an exhaustive list of structures to be notified the Commission began a fresh such exercise, to be conducted by history and architecture students of various colleges. This is as far as we know, still a project in progress. In the meanwhile, the Commission sent out a letter to the owners of all the heritage structures listed by the Court, expressly forbidding them from carrying out any repairs, changes or renovations until further notice. Many heritage property owners were delighted. They just neglected the buildings under their control so that they could fall apart thereby necessitating removal and construction of high rise in their place.

Then came the Tamil Nadu Heritage Commission Act of 2012, which called for the formation of a second Heritage Commission, with a mandate that was identical to the first, the difference being that it had the entire state and not just Chennai as its territory. Nobody had a clear idea as to what would happen to the first Commission and it continued working (if you could call it that) for a while until the natural inertia of anything to do with the Government caught up with it. It is not clear if it even meets. The second Heritage Commission was never formed as far as we know.

And now we have the third. The mandate is not much different. The Commission should oversee the running of region and district-wise sub committees that will study monuments in their areas and submit proposals to the Government for further action. No repairs, changes or renovations must happen to heritage structures unless this Commission approves of them. It all sounds very impressive on paper. Let us now sit back and watch how much of it translates to action. The history of the past 11 years does not fill us with hope.

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