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Vol. XXXIII No. 14, November 1-15, 2023

Can Mamallapuram be spared Real Estate Development?

-- by Sriram V.

The signs are all there. Just consider the property-related news items of the last six months or so. “Mamallapuram – Tourist Spot transformed into a live work-play destination”, “G Square successfully expands into Mahabalipuram, launches G Square Dynasty”, “Chennai Peripheral Ring Road to make Mamallapuram the next Sholinganallur”, “Holistic Plan by CMDA necessary for Chennai’s expansion,” “Mahabalipuram emerging as an exciting destination for a Mega Sports City,” and so on. Recently there was even a seminar on real estate development in Mamallapuram. It would seem that what was till recently a historic treasure will soon be ravaged by development.

Before the pro-development lobby descends on us and begins chanting its usual mantra on how such progress is essential and we cannot be forever living in the past, it is necessary to reflect on what makes Mamallapuram special. What gives it its character? Why do people from all over the world come there in such vast numbers? Why has UNESCO recognised the place as a world heritage monument? It is because of the magnificent Pallava-era rock carvings the place possesses. Is not such a heritage sufficient reason to argue for special status for Mamallapuram to protect it from modern development?

We are sure that on paper all the usual clauses of protection of Mamallapuram’s heritage status will be there. There will be assurances that the monuments will not be affected in any way. But we all know what happens in India when it comes to such so called clauses. There will be creeping circumventions that everyone will turn a blind eye to until it becomes too late. And then there will be the usual blame game, spurt of litigation, fact-finding committees and the rest, but the damage will be done. If Mamallapuram is to be developed like any other place near Chennai, the long-term loss will be incalculable.

Our city is not unique to this phenomenon. All over India we have several instances of how heritage has been at the receiving end of rampant modernisation. Even the capital of Delhi is not an exception despite its privileged status and the amount of international attention it receives. There are numerous instances even there of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected monuments that have been encroached upon, some being lived-in by squatters who refuse to leave and certain cases where structures have vanished altogether despite being protected on paper. This is exactly what will happen here as well, not in a decade, not in fifty years, but certainly within a century.

Neighbouring Pallavaram is a case in point. It has plenty of megalithic cairns, burial mounds and related relics. Until the 1980s they co-existed peaceably with living neighbours. Then came real estate development. New purchases were made, land was bought and sold indiscriminately and before anyone realised it, some buyers were title holders to property in which megalithic relics exist. With the ASI waking up too late, houses were constructed, and now many of these are subject to never-ending litigation. As is usual nobody is responsible though everyone is culpable. This is exactly what will happen in Mamallapuram.

We need to also realise that UNESCO has stringent norms on what gives a place protected status. Any tampering with this results in immediate withdrawal of recognition. It nearly happened at Hampi when a bridge was constructed violating the norms. It had to be demolished and a warning was given as well. We sincerely hope this will not come to pass at Mamallapuram though that is exactly what the builder-bureaucrat nexus may desire.

What is needed now is special protection for Mamallapuram from development. Such modernisation is most unwarranted. If necessary the Government can consider Transfer of Development Rights as a one-time measure for property owners in the area and close the matter before it is too late.

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