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Jaya runs into heritage college wall

Chennai, March 30: Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa is facing flak from women students for threatening to pull down their college to make way for a new secretariat complex.

Queen Mary’s College, the first women’s college in south India, was established in 1914 as the Madras Women’s College. It has been a forerunner in women’s empowerment in the region.

“Is this right' Is this right'” screamed students as they held a lunch-hour demonstration in their campus last week, soon after word got around that mandarins in Fort St George, less than 3 km away, were eyeing the campus to give effect to the ADMK chief’s new plans. “Where will they get the money from when they say the coffers are empty'” asked one of the students.

During the ADMK regime’s earlier stint, a building housing the state director-general of police’s office, a stone’s throw from the college, was saved from being pulled down after a long battle waged by conservationists and heritage lovers. The government was planning to construct a “new DGP office complex”.

The succeeding DMK rule saw reason in the conservationists’ argument and repaired the existing structure.

Ever since she came back to power in March last year, the one thing that has been bothering Jayalalithaa is the pressing need to shift the present seat of governance to a more spacious expanse.

In the Fort St George campus, also a protected ASI monument and under the control of the army, the secretariat occupies a mere 3.90 acres out of a total of 107.50 acres. The government cannot even move a stone or cut a blade of grass without the approval of the ASI or the army.

To overcome the space constraint posed by a burgeoning bureaucracy, in 1970, a massive 10-storied complex was constructed nearby by the previous DMK regime.

However, Jayalalithaa argued that despite these changes, the rat-infested secretariat was still quite cramped with uncomfortable seating enclosures and “lacking in basic amenities”.

Last year, Amma’s proposal for constructing a “new administrative city” en route to the historic tourist spot of Mamallapuram, involving thousands of crores of rupees, met with stiff political resistance.

But she went ahead with her decision and in January, a memorandum of understanding between the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and the Construction and Industrial Development Board of Malaysia was signed for a detailed feasibility study. However, within a month, Jayalalithaa realised that implementing her “dream project” could take up to 20-25 years.

During the last session of the Assembly, she announced that her government was thinking of constructing a new secretariat complex overlooking the Marina beach and that it would be modelled on the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore.

Although she had initially indicated that the project would cover the stretch between the college and Vivekananda House — another landmark next to the beach — reports that the college campus, too, would face the brunt put its students on the warpath. “We have not yet received any formal letter on pulling down QMC, but the news is shocking,” said a senior faculty member of the college.

It is one of the few women’s institutions where 65 per cent of its 4,200-odd students come from the scheduled and backward classes, she said, adding that shifting the college to some obscure location would be traumatic and would negate its historical significance.

When DMK leader Ponmudi made an oblique reference in the Assembly to the demonstration by college students, Jayalalithaa shot back: “Don’t hurl charges at us based on rumours.”

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