By Shevlin Sebastian
Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram
Businessman Kenneth Torres from Sheffield, Britain, shook Fr. Aneesh Kurian's hand, and said, “Why is the work taking so long? The government machinery is very slow.”
In July, 2014, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had begun conservation work on the laterite walls, near the altar, of the 512-year-old St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi. They were also going to restore the wooden altar. The original schedule was six months. But 13 months later, the work is moving at a snail's pace.
Kenneth had come last year when the work had begun. So he was surprised to see that the work was unfinished.
For the parishioners, it has been an inconvenient time. “We have been using a makeshift altar for so long,” says Fr. Aneesh. “Two major celebrations have gone past: Christmas and Easter. The parishioners have asked me to send a petition to the Archaeological department to speed up the work.”
T. Sreelakshmi, superintending archaeologist of ASI, says, “This is an archaeological work. And it will take its own time. It is not replastering that we are doing. We are doing paper pulp treatment. That means, we are trying to extract the salts from the laterite walls. If we don't do that, and plaster the wall, it will be a futile exercise. The climate is also a factor. When there are moisture or wet conditions, it is difficult to work. We need to get the walls dried.”
Fr. Aneesh says the attitude of the ASI is casual and unprofessional. “In the early months, there would be five to six workers every day,” he says. “Now, it is one or two people. Sometimes, no work is being done at all. When we asked the ASI about it, they said that there is a scarcity of labour.”
Sreelakshmi says that they assign the labour depending on the requirements. “Sometimes, we put more people and at other times when we don't require it, there are less number of workers,” she says.
Interestingly, Fr. Aneesh has come to Fort Kochi, following a two-year stint in Goa. “The same ASI has done restoration work in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, [which houses the body of St. Francis Xavier], right on time,” he says. “In many places in Goa, where restoration work is being done, in temples and churches, they finish the work on the scheduled date. Why can't the ASI show the same professionalism in Kochi also?”
Sreelakshmi mentioned the limitations of a government organisation. “We need to get approval for funds allocation,” she says. “Sometimes, we get funds, sometimes we don't. There can be procedural lapses. We tried to complete it within six months, but because of these constraints, the work is still going on. I expect the project to be completed within the next two months.”
As Fr. Aneesh speaks, on a sunny August afternoon, groups of tourists from all over India as well as abroad are coming in. But all that they can see is a large green tarpaulin cloth that covers the altar. “It spoils the viewing experience,” says Fr. Aneesh. On an average, the church gets about 3000 visitors every day.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)