The end of a women's college?

Print edition : April 25, 2003

The Tamil Nadu government's move to raze to the ground an 88-year-old college for women, to make way for a new Secretariat complex facing the Marina beach, spurs spirited protests.

in Chennai

Students of Queen Mary's College offer a candlelight vigil against plans to demolish the college complex.-R. RAGU

IN a remarkable show of strength and solidarity driven by a cause, over 3,000 students, staff members and old students of the 88-year-old Queen Mary's College for women in Chennai, are standing up to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's announcement that the heritage buildings that house the institution would be brought down in order to build a modern Secretariat complex, one that would replace the complex at Fort St. George further down the road. The Chief Minister wants to raise a structure that is "better than the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, and Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi".

On April 3, despite already articulated opposition from organisations of students and teachers, architects, academics, activists, other members of the public and Opposition political party leaders, Jayalalithaa informed the Assembly, in a suo motu statement under Rule 110 that does not allow a discussion, that the "run-down" buildings on the 30-acre (about 12 hectares) campus facing the Marina beach would be razed to the ground.

Within an hour, thousands of students and staff members of the college had gathered outside QMC to protest against the decision. Jayalalithaa would not budge, and the students' and teachers' organisations, human rights groups and prominent personalities of the city have launched a "Save QMC" agitation, which is snowballing into a movement. The students are on a "sit-in" on the campus to prevent any demolition moves.

The protesters won a small victory on April 6 when Justice K. Govindarajan of the Madras High Court, having considered the matter at his house on a Sunday, admitted a petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Collegiate Teacher's Association (TCTA) and the Students Federation of India (SFI) and ordered an interim injunction against any demolition work on the campus and eviction of students from the hostel until the case came up in the High Court. The petitioners termed the government's move "arbitrary" as it involves a heritage site with "immense environmental significance". They said it violated Article 15(4) of the Constitution, which detailed the priority and privilege given to women's education.

One of the ideas behind establishing the college was the propagation of the rights of women. As S. Muthiah, historian and expert on Madras' history, says, the college, more than being a heritage site, is an edifice of women's emancipation.

The Draft Heritage Regulation of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) lists QMC as a Grade II heritage precinct, but the case for preserving QMC goes beyond the heritage status.

A part of the Queen Mary's College complex.-V. GANESAN

FOUNDED in 1914 and known as the Madras College for Women till 1917, QMC's charter was primarily to work for the emancipation of women. The role it played in women's education gave it a special place in the history of the city as also the Madras Presidency as a whole. The college began functioning in July 1914 with 37 women students from a rented premises, the Capper House. It was the first structure on the campus, transformed from the first residence on the beachfront, built by Lt. Col. Francis Capper of the Madras Army in the mid-1800s.

The second oldest college for women in the South and the first in Madras, the Madras College was renamed Queen Mary's in 1917, two years after the government acquired the building and restored it to be worthy enough to be the Presidency government's first women's college. With enthusiastic backing from the British Governor, Lord Pentland, Ms de la Hey, the Founder-Principal, built more structures and acquired the adjoining houses and expanded the college. Pentland House was opened in 1915, Stone House in 1918, and Jeypore House in 1921. These, along with the houses of two Judges - S. Subramania Iyer and Sankara Iyer - which were acquired in the 1920s, made for a sprawling campus. Today the campus has 26 structures to house the over 3,000 students studying 25 subjects. The college caters to the needs of several socially and economically deprived students. It also runs a primary school for poor children and reserves 2 per cent of its seats for the physically challenged, including the visually challenged. Over half of its students are from the poorer sections and belong to the Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. QMC's alumni also include the former Indian National Army captain and presidential candidate Lakshmi Sehgal, vocalist Vani Jayaram and Tamil Nadu Women's Commission chairperson Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi.

In 1994, a part of Capper House, poorly maintained as it was, caved in. The college administration wrote to the government seeking to repair, renovate and preserve the building. But the government, in December 2000, ordered its demolition. The alumni protested and offered to help collect funds to protect the building, but it was demolished in February 2003.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education allocated Rs.40 lakhs to renovate the main buildings and the alumni formed an association to collect funds to restore the other buildings. "Just when all was going well, came the shocking April 3 announcement by the Chief Minister," says K.A. Venmathai, a final year master's student of the college and South Chennai secretary of the SFI.

BUT why another Secretariat building? When Jayalalithaa returned to power in March 2002, she wanted to build a new one as the 25-year-old 10-storey annexe building, Namakkal Kavignar Maligai, at Fort St. George had developed cracks and was leaking. Over Rs.56 lakhs had been spent on a third floor wall that collapsed in 1994. The Chief Minister stated that over Rs.7 crores had been spent on the maintenance of the building between 1996-1997 and 2002-2003.

The government started looking for sites to build a Secretariat. In 2002, a new "administrative city" at Sholinganallur, near Mahabalipuram, some 40 km south of Chennai, was proposed. The government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Malaysian government for the construction of the Secretariat at Sholinganallur. As conceptualised, the project was to cost several thousand crores of rupees, and the project would take over 15 years to complete. So a site on the Marina sea-face was considered.

Initially, the Lady Willingdon Teacher's Training College campus, next door to QMC, was considered. But the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) opposed the proposal on grounds including environmental (there are over 20 fully-grown trees on the campus), locational (the campus, a heritage site itself, is surrounded by historical buildings) and technical (the 5-ha site would be too small for horizontal and vertical expansion and lacks the "approach vista" and "perception distance" that a building of such significance would need). Jayalalithaa then decided on the QMC campus as many of the structures there were in a "dilapidated condition". The existing college would be moved to the Lady Willingdon campus by 2004-2005 and in the interim period classes would be conducted in the evenings partly on the Presidency College campus, also on the same sea-facing stretch, and at Lady Willingdon.

Why not expand the existing Secretariat complex? According to Jayalalithaa, the Archaeological Survey of India would not allow any construction within 200 metres of Fort St. George. "We cannot wait for the Sholinganallur project. If we do, the existing structure would get further dilapidated and become unsafe for the staff. Before this structure collapses, a new complex has to be built," she said. The Lady Willingdon campus was unsuitable and hence the QMC campus was chosen as there were "no problems" relating to the Coastal Regulation Zone rules, heritage norms and development control rules, she said. But, according to CMDA officials, the Development Control Rules would have to be modified and the zoning reclassified to allow the construction of multi-storey buildings on the Marina, which was prohibited by former Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari, who had said: "We must resist such tendencies." As Muthiah says, the existing buildings along the stretch of the Marina reflect a great deal of the city's past. A skyscraper on the Marina, with the Secretariat attracting an enormous crowd and vehicles, would mean chaos and disorder. Muthiah thinks it will take away from the city the only such major recreational space available to the public.

As could be expected, the issue has set off political sparks. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who took objection to Jayalalithaa's observations about the Namakkal Kavignar Malaigai being constructed during the DMK regime, said it was unclear why more space was needed in the Secretariat when the government was claiming to reduce levels.

Other parties, including the Communist Part of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Congress (I), the Paattali Makkal Katchi and the Dalit Panthers, have come down heavily on the decision and are supporting the students' agitation.

The students, staff and alumni are determined to fight on. They would continue with their sit-in agitation until the government withdraws the order, despite the closure of the college and its hostel. Welcoming the injunction, the student-president of the evening college, R. Mohana Priya, says: "The battle is not yet won. We will not give up our candle light vigil till the demolition orders are withdrawn."

Dr. M.R. Safra Begum of the Tamil Department asks: "How can the classes just be shifted to other colleges in the evenings? What happens to the laboratories, library and the playground that the students need?"

G. Rajeswari, Lecturer in History, wonders if the government realises how much effort has gone into nurturing a college such as the QMC. "It is a shame that it wants to do it away in just one stroke."

Asks SFI State president G. Selva: "While the government has not started any new arts college in the city in the last 30 years, what moral authority does it have to do away with a century-old college?"

But no answers are forthcoming from the government to these questions, simply because not much thought appears to have gone into the matter. Alternative sites such as the Government Estate and MGR Film City have been suggested.

On April 7, the police arrested 21 students from various colleges and members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) who are supporting the agitation. According to the SFI leader Selva, if the government does not yield, the agitation would snowball. That public support for the agitation is growing is clear. Whether or not the government goes ahead with the demolition, the issue has proved to be a cause celebre that has highlighted the courage and determination of the students concerned.

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