Chennai: The Anna Centenary Library building, established in September last year by former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, will now house a children’s hospital, chief minister J. Jayalalithaa said.


Altering plans: Chief minister J. Jayalalithaa.

The library will be moved to a planned “integrated knowledge centre" that would include the administrative offices of the directorate of school education, a training centre, auditoria and studios to produce educational films, in a campus that currently houses the directorate of public instruction, Jayalalithaa said in a statement on Wednesday.

The 333,140 sq.ft, nine-storey library was built at an expense of more than 600 crore.

The move comes at a time when Tamil Nadu is facing a fiscal deficit of 16,881 crore, about 2.91% of the gross state domestic product (GSDP), according to the August budget speech of finance minister O. Panneerselvam.

In it, the administration budgeted to continue the previous administration’s practice of giving away freebies to voters—in Jayalalithaa’s case kitchen mixers, grinders, livestock and laptops—but claimed credit for bringing the fiscal deficit to under 3%—the norm prescribed by the Thirteenth Finance Commission—from the 3.21% recorded in 2010-11 under the Karunanidhi government.

However, this was before Jayalalithaa announced that a brand new building intended for a combined assembly and secretariat would be converted into a medical college and hospital. The latest announcement comes on the heels of that move.

“This is an issue that is beyond fiscal deficit and the question of whether we can afford it," said political commentator and lawyer Krishna Ananth. “It’s a most unfortunate move that is reflective of a political culture that both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi are guilty of in that they deface what each other did."

Almost immediately after her All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party came to power with a sweeping majority in the April assembly elections, Jayalalithaa announced that a 200 crore school education reform initiative announced by Karunanidhi would be overturned.

Students in the affected school boards had to attend school without books for nearly two months as her decision was challenged in court and then overturned.

Then came the move to turn the assembly-and-secretariat complex, built at an estimated cost of 1,200 crore by the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, into a medical college and hospital.

The government had earlier stopped the DMK’s flagship programme of supplying free colour TVs, and recast an insurance scheme named after Karunanidhi.

“If everything done by earlier regimes is reversed, there is no continuity in governance," said A.S. Panneerselvan, director of Panos South Asia, a non-profit organisation. “No long-term plan can be completed in one five-year term. If this continues, there are going to be grievous consequences for the state."

Instead of deciding to move the library, the chief minister could have served the cause of education better by going further, said Balaji Sampath, founder of AID India, a non-governmental organization that promotes education.

“She could have taken it forward by having science exhibits, a learning centre, a museum for science exploration," he said. “There’s nothing of the kind in Chennai, whereas every city in the US has a facility like that."

The medical community may see it differently.

“If the library is not going to close, and it’s moving to another place, then I welcome this move because there is a definite need for it," said B. Sai Lakshmi, a paediatrician and neonatologist who runs the non-governmental organization Ekam, a paediatric healthcare advocacy group.

There is currently only one government hospital specializing in childcare in the city—the Institute of Child Health—with 537 beds, and around 637 children are undergoing treatment or awaiting treatment at the hospital on an average, according to Ekam.

Though Tamil Nadu has among the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates among Indian states, this is increasing, Lakshmi said. Even as she expressed approval for the government’s move, she said the existing facilities needed to be upgraded.

Meanwhile, Karunanidhi, the man who established the library, said on Wednesday he would leave the matter to Tamils and scholars with “self-respect."

PTI and S. Bridget Leena contributed to this report.