x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Anger as history makes way for India's metro systems

India's old cities are facing a dilemma: an explosion in population requires the need for transport solutions, but it could come at the cost of fragile heritage sites.

Traffic moves along a busy road in the southern city of Chennai. A metro is under construction to reduce congestion but experts are concerned that historic sites will be affected.
Traffic moves along a busy road in the southern city of Chennai. A metro is under construction to reduce congestion but experts are concerned that historic sites will be affected.

NEW DELHI // On Chennai's arterial Mount Road, always teeming with traffic, the premises of P Orr & Sons stands out, the pristine whitewashed walls almost painful to look at in the bright summer sun.

The watch-making company founded in 1843 by two British brothers moved into its Mount Road home in 1879. The building - with its long and cool corridors, its distinctive clock tower, and its winding staircases - was designed by the renowned architect Robert Chisholm, and is still a flourishing watch showroom.

Even so, on a Sunday night in mid-April, bulldozers pushed down a chunk of the building to make way for Chennai's metro rail project.

India's biggest cities are facing a dilemma. As their populations explode and their roads seem increasingly inadequate to handle the number of vehicles, urban planners are recommending mass-transit solutions, especially overhead and underground metro rail systems.

With metro projects beginning to plough through the densest parts of these cities, they will inevitably run into buildings like the P Orr & Sons headquarters - many decades, or even centuries, old, and part of a physical heritage that needs to be preserved, said V Sriram, convener of the Chennai chapter Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

In a survey of historic buildings in Chennai, the P Orr & Sons building was assigned Grade I heritage status - the highest such rank, awarded to structures considered "prime landmarks of the city".

However a high court ruled earlier this month that only the showroom in the front of the building constituted the heritage structure, and that its rear could be demolished.

"And yet, a petrol station that was right next to the P Orr building was considered important enough to be left intact," said Mr Sriram, whose organisation tried in vain to preserve the P Orr & Sons.

New metro rail systems are at various stages of construction in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore - all old cities with dense history often contained within their crumbling walls.

The transport systems are desperately needed to ease pressure on roads overwhelmed by the boom in car ownership.

New Delhi, for example, witnessed a 132 per cent increase in the number of cars between 2001 and 2011, according to a report released last year by the Centre for Science and Environment; but the city's total length of road increased in that same period by just 20 per cent. Today, close to 1,000 cars are added to New Delhi's roads every day.

Other cities face similar explosions in traffic. In Chennai, according to its transport department, the number of registered vehicles increased from 975,915 in April 1998 to 2.7 million in April 2010. In the Mumbai metropolitan region, a statistic from the Mumbai Environment Social Network states, the number of vehicles exploded from 2.6 million to 3.5 million in just three years, from 2005 to 2008.

In response, city authorities have turned to metro systems.

In Delhi, a new leg of its much-praised metro, which has been operational since 2002 and now carries nearly 2 million people a day, is being built to run through a historic part of the city dubbed the "Heritage Corridor".

As in Chennai, heritage conservationists in other cities are fighting an uphill battle.

INTACH's Hyderabad chapter has identified 45 heritage buildings along three corridors of the 160-billion-rupee metro project. This includes several structures in the city's historic Charminar quarter - all of which, said M Vedakumar, INTACH's convener in the city, has been designated a heritage precinct.

"Landmarks are going to be wiped out. We're going to see them only in photos, in a few years," Mr Vedakumar said. "We're not against the metro rail at all. We have made presentations to the authorities about alternatives, but the authorities have decided to go right ahead with their plans."

Heritage authorities in New Delhi and Mumbai have been more successful because they have been more empowered, said Mr Sriram.

The Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) - a combative and independent-minded government body - has, for instance, been given the authority to "scrutinise, approve, reject or modify" a variety of transit project plans.

In 2008 and 2009, the DUAC stalled the construction of an underground tunnel near the 16th century tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun. In 2006, when an overhead section of the metro was planned to run perilously close to the Delhi's famed Qutab Minar, a Unesco World Heritage site dating to 1052, DUAC and INTACH's Delhi chapter forced a diversion of the route.

In a written summary of its legal interventions over the last 20 years, INTACH acknowledges that the Delhi Metro has done "a remarkable job" in being sensitive towards its environment.

Four months ago, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) also announced the adoption of special technology to cushion the vibrations of the trains that will run through the Heritage Corridor.

"We are planning to use this technology quite extensively near the Jama Masjid metro station [close to a 17th century mosque] since it has a large density of old structures," Kumar Keshav, the DMRC's director of projects, told the Mail Today newspaper.

Construction of Mumbai's metro has begun only in more northern suburbs, where there are fewer heritage buildings, said V Ranganathan, INTACH's convener for the state of Maharashtra.

"The real issue will come when the metro is laid … in the south, where there are far more historic buildings," Mr Ranganathan said. That line, scheduled to open in 2019, will run underground, close to old foundations, but Mr Ranganathan proclaimed himself largely unworried.

"Bombay has an independent heritage committee, whose approval is required for all projects, and it is being implemented in a fairly satisfactory manner," he said.

In Chennai, meanwhile, Mr Sriram's worries have not ceased.

Further along the metro line's route lies St Andrew's Church, modelled on London's St Martin-in-the-Fields and consecrated in 1821. "This area had very soft soil, so the architect adopted a local building method and built the foundation on terracotta wells. It's very unique," Mr Sriram said.

"But the metro is going to go very close to that foundation, and although they say they have done a study to place the tracks, that report hasn't been made public. What will the train's vibrations do to the church's foundations? We don't know."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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