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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 17, December 16-31, 2010
Fort's fading splendour
(By The Editor)

Heritage is victim of turf war

As this journal has repeatedly said, if there is one place in Chennai that should be declared a World Heritage Monument/Site, it is Fort St. George where modern India began. Every building in the Fort has one or more stories to tell of the contributions made to the development of the India we know today. But, far from the institutions occupying the Fort seeking such recognition, they are day by day degrading the precinct. And these are occupants whose status in civil society makes you expect greater sensitivity and responsibility.

King's Barracks front – with some maintenance but also much construction ignoring heritage principles.

King's Barracks rear: With no attention paid to it for years, it is fast ­deteriorating.

The shift of Tamil Nadu’s legislative seat from the Fort St. George was seen as a step towards further restoring the site as a heritage precinct and making it more accessible to the public. However, the degenerating condition of this protected precinct questions the role of its occupants, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the State Government and the Army.

The conservation of the structures within the premises of the Fort is, unfortunately, divided between conflicting authorities. Declared a protected monument by the ASI post-Independence, Fort St. George has been midst a turf war ever since, particularly between the ASI and the Army, with the conservation of protected monuments taking a backseat. But while heritage is paid little attention, construction of illegal structures – illegal because there is no consultation on whether they can be constructed or not – goes on apace and a cold war flourishes in the Fort.

The greening of a Fort... where no greenery existed in its heritage. On left, a playground and on right, the entrance to the Golden Palm Sainik Institute. (All photographs by a staff photographer.)

Some of the protected structures owned by the Army are the King’s Barracks, Wellesley House, Fort House, and Station HQ. Clive House, St. Mary’s Church, the Fort Museum and the ramparts are under the jurisdiction of the ASI. While restoration work has been undertaken in a phased manner in the case of the latter, there has been no progress for years on the restoration of King’s Barracks and Wellesley House. While the front portion of King’s Barracks, now an Army canteen, has been maintained modestly due to its easy accessibility and heavy public activity, the rear of the building is dilapidated and in virtual ruins. Some years ago your Editor was in an Army-ASI-INTACH joint discussion on restoring King’s Barracks but, after general agreement on working together, all was forgotten thereafter. Similarly, a portion of the Wellesley House collapsed many years ago and no initiative to restore it has been taken despite many a discussion in the past.

* * *

Construction within 100 metres of a protected site is prohibited and construction further in the next 200-300 metres can take place only with prior permission from the ASI, Sathyabhama Badhreenath, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Chennai Circle), points out. The Army, however, has suddenly constructed the Sainik Institute within 100 m of the ramparts. Playgrounds and buildings under the ASI’s control have also been occupied in the past few years. And the most recent development has been constructing footpaths bordering the Church and the Station Headquarters. Notices issued by the ASI have been ignored. “The attitude of the Army towards buildings in protected areas makes it tough to reach a consensus and implement restoration activities as well as protect listed buildings,” adds Ms. Badhreenath.

Making changes without consultations also occurred when the Legislative Chamber was recently transformed into a library by the Government. There have also been no discussions on what changes await this historic Secretariat when the offices move out.

In the midst of this constant struggle for authority, Fort St. George is clearly losing its historical splendour. One of the most important heritage structures in modern India, its status as a ‘protected’ monument holds no significance, given the manner in which ASI rules are being flouted.

Can't the moat and its park-like surroundings be brought back to this? (Photograph: Vintage Vignettes.)

A reflection of the city’s glorious past, the precinct is in grave need of restoration and conservation. Unless the authorities reach a consensus and resolve existing issues, the future of this pre-eminent precinct appears dismal.

FOOTNOTE: Who is in charge of the moats and the park beyond the outer one? Surely it will not cost much to clean up the moats, make them water-rich again and develop the park? If the owners, whoever they are, do not want to do it, why don’t they hand it over to the Corporation which is doing a fine job with the city’s parks?

In this issue

Fort's fading splendour
High Court restoration in urgent need of action
Here's how you build Green Homes
The city's first botanical gardens
An eco-system in transition
Where good food & music go together

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