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Vol. XXXIV No. 2, May 1-15, 2024

Finally, a (Notified) Heritage Act in place

-- by Sriram V

And so a long battle winds to a close. The Tamil Nadu Government informed the High Court of Madras that it has notified on March 1, 2024, its Heritage Commission (Amendment) Act 2017 and that the same has come into effect on that date. With that, the decks are finally cleared on having a Heritage Act in place for the entire State. While much of Government-owned heritage continues to survive and will certainly benefit from the Act, the same cannot be said of heritage structures in private hands. Most of them have vanished and what survives can be saved only if the Heritage Commission that should now be in place moves quickly.

It has taken seven long years for the notification of an Act and even that needed Court intervention. If you consider that the Heritage Act itself was originally passed in 2012, it has taken 12 years! What is now needed is action. The Government has informed the Court that it expects its Heritage Commission to be in place by July 2024. Much however will depend on what is the composition of this body. Going by the experience of earlier Heritage Conservation Committees in existence, the members are likely to be almost all from Government departments or institutions under Government supervision and patronage. If this can be avoided and there is a reasonable representation of outsiders with experience in conservation, much can be achieved.

One of the tasks that the Commission will need to take up is listing of heritage structures in the State, classifying them in terms of degree of importance and most importantly, notifying the list so that buildings within its purview come under protection in the eyes of the law. The Commission can save considerable time at least as far as heritage within Chennaiis concerned by adopting the list that the High Court provided to the CMDA in 2010, as an outcome of the Justice Padmanabhan Committee. Previous Heritage Conservation Committees have gone around in circles initiating the same listing and never coming to a conclusion. It is to be sincerely hoped that the new Commission will not do the same. If the 2010 list were to be adopted, the task in Chennai would be limited to just identifying the buildings left out and including them later. That way, attention can focus on listing heritage in the rest of the State, where in the absence of activism, old and noteworthy structures are perpetually at risk of demolition. The new Commission must set a deadline for itself on these tasks and adhere to them.

The next important activity should be a clear policy on dos and don’ts for those in possession of heritage buildings. Previous committees have focused more on the don’ts, and as a consequence, owners have been left puzzled over what can actually be done. It is also important for the Commission to spell out what rewards there can be for those who own and care for heritage. This is particularly important for private heritage properties with many claimants for ownership. More often than not, it is financial necessity that forces owners to sell heritage properties for commercial development. The Commission needs to implement transfer of development rights (TDRs) so that owners can claim a one-time benefit and yet retain their heritage buildings.

That said, it cannot be denied that the notification of this Act is a landmark moment in the fight to save the State’s built heritage. While it is a milestone, action following it is what will make the efforts that went into the creation of this piece of legislation worthwhile.

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