Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 18, January 1-15, 2024

Who protects the Heritage of Fort St George?

-- by Sriram V.

In our issue of Madras Musings dated December 16, 2023, we reported on the sad collapse of Last House on Snob’s Alley in Fort St George. Ostensibly under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India, the structure, one of the oldest in the Fort, had been steadily neglected to a point of no return. It has now joined a long line of fallen buildings in the precinct. The ASI has maintained a studious silence on the matter. Considering that there are buildings supposedly protected by the same body which are nothing more than debris inside the Fort and which have remained that way for years, we expect no further action on this matter as well.

The ASI probably thinks it can get away with this. There being multiple owners of the Fort, nobody is really accountable, and so the ASI thinks right. The Army controls a part, the Navy yet another, the ASI has some portions under itself, and the Government of Tamil Nadu has the rest. Can we ever imagine these august bodies coming together to protect the Fort? Most unlikely. As a result, each one gets away with neglect.

Reliable sources within the Army and the Navy are of the view that the ASI has no locus standi when it comes to the Fort’s protection. They point out that the record of the ASI is not edifying in this regard, and they are not wrong. After all, when the Government began scouting for land in the 1980s for putting up a new Secretariat building, it was the ASI that readily caved in. It denotified an entire section of the Fort and demolished all that stood there to make way for the hideous Namakkal Kavignar Maligai. And apart from maintaining the Church of St. Mary’s, the Fort Museum, and its own office (Admiralty Building), it has done precious little. Source within the Army claim that the ASI has for long been pressing for it to hand over the King’s Barracks, but the former is reluctant to do so. “What is the guarantee that they will not denotify that also and hand over the space to the State Government,” asks an army officer. “After all, King’s Barracks is 100,000 square feet of space and so is valuable real estate inside the Fort premises.” The State Government, according to the Army is continuously looking out for more space within the Fort.

That said, the record of the Army and the Navy is not great either. For all their reluctance to hand over King’s Barracks, the Army has done precious little to maintain the place. Parts of the roof have fallen in, and rest of the space is used as a dump. The Navy has forever been talking about restoring what is called Clive’s Library but with little to show for it. The building is now like something out of Indiana Jones, enveloped by a tree that is propping up its walls. How then can the Army and Navy claim to be protecting the Fort’s heritage? As for the State Government, very little needs to be said about their commitment to the Fort’s upkeep. When all else fails, they can always say they are not interested in protecting colonial heritage.

And so things look bleak for Fort St George. It ideally needs an overarching umbrella organisation with members from the various owner bodies that can maintain the place. It can even have a Chief Executive who can be given revenue targets from tourism income. Only then will the Fort see better days.

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