Heritage sites include buildings, monuments, gardens, cemeteries, landscapes and archaeological sites and each one of these places has a story of their own to tell. The story may be about the design of the building, the material used to build them, interior features like woodwork and cornicing, murals, the paint colours and even the landscaping. However, as the development pressure increases and land becomes scarce heritage buildings face pressures of various magnitudes. We see long followed rules and principles being bent to suit the present day requirements much to the chagrin of conservationists. Whatever said and done, it’s generally believed that construction in general and that of buildings in particular are one of the greatest threats to heritage sites – not only in India but world over. Nevertheless, the conservation of built heritage is generally perceived to be in the long term interest of society.
Last year (2018) in January Lok Sabha passed the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment) Bill 2017 that allowed government to take up infrastructure projects within the 100 metre prohibited periphery around protected monuments. Setting aside opposition to the move then minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma said banning construction in the prohibited areas was adversely affecting various public works and developmental projects of the central government. Till then the existing law described ‘prohibited area’ as land in the 100-metre radius around a protected monument and construction is not allowed in the prohibited areas except for repair and renovation works.
Meanwhile the heritage handbook of CPWD says that “Nothing mentioned so far should be deemed to confer a right on the owner / occupier of the plot to demolish or reconstruct or make alterations to his heritage building / buildings in a heritage precinct or on a natural heritage site if in the opinion of the Heritage Conservation Committee, such demolition / reconstruction /alteration is undesirable.” However, CPWD is government owned its guidelines can be interpreted the way it suits the government.
Not surprisingly India has a history of demolishing heritage sites and mainly for development works. In 2017, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, demolished two iconic structures in New Delhi—the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industries—along with the Nehru Pavilion. They are now to be replaced by a “world-class” Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre (IECC) at Pragati Maidan. One argument given was that those structures were not 60 years old when demolished so they were not heritage buildings though they were considered landmarks. One of the reasons why the Hall of Nations designed by Raj Rewal considered iconic is because it was pillar less. Can a building be demolished just because it has not yet become “senior citizen”?
Same year in Bangalore, over 100-year-old Krumbiegel Hall in the iconic Lalbagh was demolished. In Ahmedabad which is a heritage city, of the 489 listed properties the heritage department had set out to validate, 11 are now “vacant plots” and as many as 38 buildings have been demolished. In Kolkata, Dunlop House and Kenilworth Hotel have been demolished to make place for new buildings.
Heritage sites are facing threat not just in India but also in many other parts of the world. According to a survey done by World Wide Fund for Nature three years ago at least 114 of the 229 world heritage sites classed as being of outstanding importance for their natural habitats or their flora and fauna are now subject to fossil fuel extraction concessions, or are under close threat from other industrial activities. Unesco world heritage status is a coveted accolade, but also confers responsibilities on the governments in charge of the sites.
But the big question asked is – are there any set of rules that are followed to define built heritage? Do we need to have a separate set of rules than the Unesco principles to decide heritage? Only those buildings built by erstwhile rulers/kings, Mughals and British fall in the category of heritage buildings? If not, can Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore be considered as heritage building? If yes, could it have been demolished before 2016, that is, before attaining the age of 60? Answers to these questions are hard to come by.
The importance of preserving archeological sites during large-scale development projects has been recognized and regulated both nationally and internationally. In fact, the event that aroused particular international concern was a development activity, that is, the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would have flooded the valley containing the Abu Simbel temples, a treasure of ancient Egyptian civilization. Since then we have seen several such events which have endangered the survival of cultural heritages. Decision to build Mathura refinery and its adverse impact on Taj Mahal is well documented. Despite such incidents there is no denial of the fact that UNESCO has intensified activism to protect monuments globally.
Development projects are needed as they are the symbols of progress but at the same time such progress should not come at the cost of our symbols of history. A civilised society always values its heritage as it’s the reflection of its past. Urge to protect heritage should be imbibed in every citizen and it should take the shape of a movement. Then only we can breathe a sigh of relief.