Revisiting the history of Tamil Nadu’s first exclusive COVID-19 hospital

It remained a Secretariat for around a year, but was abandoned when regime changed in May 2011

The construction of the new Secretariat started in 2008 and was completed in 2010

The Tamil Nadu government on Friday (March 27) set up the state’s first exclusive hospital for treating coronavirus patients at the Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital (TNGMSSH) at Omandurar in Chennai.

Spread over 9,30,297 sq ft, the building is located at Omandurar Government Estate in Chennai’s Anna Salai. It was inaugurated in 2010 as the New Secretariat building and later converted into a hospital in 2014. Since then, it has been serving as a referral hospital.

Initially having 400 beds, the use of the building had not been fully realised. But in the wake of a surge in COVID-19 cases in the state, it is now going to be used as a dedicated hospital for the infected patients. In this backdrop, The Federal revisits the history of the building.

In memory of Omandur

The hospital is located in an area called Omandurar Estate, named in memory of Omandur Ramasamy Reddiar, former premier of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Former chief minister M Karunanidhi had renamed the government estate after the former premier during the seventies.

Omandurar, a Congressman, served as the premier between 1947 and 1949, and was the first premier to celebrate the first Independence Day of India in Tamil Nadu. He was known for streamlining and implementing the caste-based reservation in the presidency.

“The ‘Cooum House’ existed here. Omandurar stayed in that building which was built by the British. Later it was known as chief minister’s residence,” said Dravidian historian and advocate KS Radhakrishnan.

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After Omandurar, several other senior officials stayed in the building. But due to the presence of a huge number of snakes, the chief minister’s residence was shifted to Greenways Road, he added.

It is interesting to note that Omandurar was once admitted in the Government General Hospital (now called Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital). During his stay there, he asked the doctors to promise him he will not be given any special attention because of his position and that the doctors treating him should not come up with any obligations later.

Search for a secretariat

The Secretariat of Tamil Nadu is housed at George Fort, which was built in 1644 and located on the banks of Bay of Bengal.

It was in the early eighties, the then AIADMK regime had decided to shift the Secretariat from George Fort since the city was reeling under water scarcity. Former chief minister MG Ramachandran had even put forth his plan of shifting it to Trichy, but it did not go down well among most of his ministers.

In 2002, during her second term as chief minister, J Jayalalithaa revived the project of shifting the Secretariat. She planned to move it to Mamallapuram, and then to Thiruvidanthai, both in Kanchipuram district. But she gave up after she realised it would have taken some 15 to 20 years to build the Secretariat there.

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In 2003, she again had plans to move the Secretariat opposite to the Marina Beach. She had chosen a place inside Lady Willingdon College campus but again had to give up the idea since it did not have sufficient space to accommodate a Secretariat.

Then she chose to demolish Queen Mary’s College and build the Secretariat there. Later, she planned to build it on a land belonging to Anna University. But both the plans were given up due to opposition from students and college and university authorities.

In 2007, during the celebration of Karunanidhi’s 50 years of association with the legislature, the then DMK government had mooted the plan of having the new Secretariat at Anna Salai.

From Secretariat to hospital

The construction of the new Secretariat started in 2008 and was completed in 2010 at a budget of ₹143 crore. The building was designed by a German firm named GMP and built by East Coast Constructions and Industries Limited, which had earlier built structures like the Valluvar Kottam.

The building became a landmark in Anna Salai after then prime minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated it in March 2010. It remained a Secretariat for around a year, but was abandoned when the regime changed in May 2011.

This political war between DMK and AIADMK left the building at lurch. The AIADMK alleged the construction of the building involved many irregularities and corruption, and even took steps for investigation.

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Amid all these, The Hindu had asked it readers to pitch in ideas on how well the building could be used, and most of them suggested it could be converted into a hospital. Following the National Green Tribunal’s order, the then Jayalalithaa government started converting the building into hospital in 2013 and it was inaugurated in 2014.

However, it was alleged the building was not built in a way to house a hospital. Speaking to The Federal, A Srivathsan, former journalist at The Hindu and a professional architect, said the retrofitting of the building has been done properly, and there is no problem in it housing a hospital.

“Retrofitting is not a problem. But how quickly you are doing it at a time of emergency is the question. When the government decided to convert the building into a hospital, no one could have thought of a pandemic like COVID-19. So it was converted it into a super speciality hospital,” he said.

Politics in the time of a pandemic

Out of 400 beds in the hospital, 350 were allotted for treating COVID-19 patients in the last week. After seeing a spike in the cases, the health department decided to reserve it as an exclusive hospital to treat coronavirus cases. It has also increased the number of beds to 500.

Amid all these, DMK and AIADMK followers on social media have started to drag each other’s leg. AIADMK supporters alleged that the DMK has not been implementing the will of Karunanidhi, which is to convert the party patriarch’s house in Gopalapuram into a hospital.

This comes at a time when actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan has offered his house at Alwarpet for converting it into a hospital to treat COVID-19 patients.

According to a will by Karunanidhi, a day before his 86th birthday in 2010, he said the house where he lived will be given to the Anjugam Trust and have it converted into a hospital after the death of his wife Dayalu Ammal.

“The idea of shifting the Secretariat surfaced during MG Ramachandran’s period. But Karunanidhi commissioned the building meant for the Secretariat. And Jayalalithaa converted the building into a hospital. These kinds of debates are irrelevant now,” said Srivathsan.