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Disrespecting heritage

The ministry of culture’s proposal to allow construction near historical monuments betrays a lack of understanding of their value.

Written by Saptarshi Sanyal |
January 25, 2017 12:02:52 am
historical monuments, historical monumnet construction, culture ministry, Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains, amasr act, 2010 amasr act, National Monuments’ Authority, Archaeological Survey of India, asi, hampi bazar, World Heritage Site, humayun tomb, charminar, indian express news, india news, indian express column We don’t need multi-storeyed apartment blocks or parking complexes stuck to the walls of Humayun’s Tomb, just like we don’t need cellphone towers atop the Charminar.

A recent note of the culture ministry to the cabinet has a proposal to amend the law that accords protection to heritage sites in the country.

Built heritage is a significant public good and is recognised as such in the Constitution’s Seventh Schedule. It nurtures our collective memories of places and is a significant constituent in the identity of cities. It has invaluable potential to contribute to our knowledge of not just history and the arts, but also science and technology. Several buildings and sites throughout the country, even entire areas or parts of historic cities, are examples of sustainable development. They demonstrate complex connections of man with nature.

Unlike other intangible forms of cultural inheritance, our built heritage is an irreplaceable resource. It is site-specific. Knowledge gained from such resources can provide constructive ways to address development challenges. But the persistent oversight of the values of our heritage is one of the major paradoxes of physical planning and urban development in post-colonial India. Conservation of heritage is not seen as a priority to human need and development. Heritage sites are more often than not seen as consumables and usually end up as the tourism industry’s cash cows and little else.

The Ministry of Culture’s note suggests amendments to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendments and Validation) Act, 2010 (AMASR Act, 2010). It concludes by referring to a 2016 bill to amend the act and suggests giving legal powers to the Central government with respect to new construction in protected sites by superceding existing bodies like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and National Monuments’ Authority (NMA) respectively. Ironically, both the ASI and NMA, technical arms of the MoC, have the mandate to regulate construction and threats within and around protected heritage sites.

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If the 2016 bill is cleared by Parliament, such construction could happen in the immediate vicinity of protected properties of national importance. Such “prohibited areas”, are within 100 metres of the delineated boundaries of monuments. Historic structures and archaeological remains are most susceptible to heavy vibrations, chemical effects or mechanical stresses in this zone. The AMASR Act, 2010 and its 1958 predecessor can be traced to a colonial legislation, namely the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, which deemed it “expedient to provide for the preservation of Ancient Monuments”. The blanket rule on the “prohibited areas” should, and has, been debated at various professional and academic fora. Certainly a law originating from a colonial outlook needs review, given our current depth of knowledge on heritage. However, doing away with protection without survey and documentation, can be catastrophic.

The NMA, constituted under provisions of the 2010 act, is in the process of preparing site-specific guidelines. But given the vast number of heritage sites in India and the small number of in-house specialists, the work has been slow.

The proposal of the Ministry of Culture uses the buzzwords, “innovation”, “sustainability” and “accountability”. None of these are clarified or explained in the proposal with respect to the nature of projects envisaged. Two of the three projects justified in the proposal have contradictions. The first relates to the construction of an elevated road next to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra to “reduce road accidents” and “for organised traffic movement”. While an elevated road would visually obliterate the historic structure, it would also encourage high-speed traffic,one of the leading causes of road accidents. Traffic movement and automobile fumes would scar an elaborately painted gateway. Cranes and piles operating in the immediate vicinity of the 500-year old Mughal structure will cause excessive vibrations. The other project, Rani-Ki-Vav in Patan, Gujarat is slated to be the site for a railway track. Whether a railway track is as irreplaceable or sustainable, as an 11th century, seven-storied, subterranean step-well demonstrating the best in water management in the past, is surely not a very difficult question to answer. Incidentally, Rani-Ki-Vav is one of the recent most inclusions from India in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

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The field of architectural conservation in India has grown significantly in the past three decades, giving us new definitions of heritage.

Pedagogy and practice of conservation is trans-disciplinary and aims to, at one level, demystify the complex, and sometimes, inscrutable qualities of the historic environments. Professionally, we have moved beyond a colonial, monument-centric understanding of heritage in India. We now appreciate and have developed inter-disciplinary ways to work with it. This understanding needs to be mainstreamed and integrated into development considerations and processes, rather than be ignored or subverted.

In 2011, Hampi Bazar, a living component of a World Heritage Site was demolished by ill-informed planning authorities. Such actions damage both the historic fabric of a society and its fundamental right to live with, learn from and enjoy heritage. It is imperative that our governance, vision and action related to heritage comes of age. We most certainly need housing for all and enough space to park our cars.

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We need improved communication technologies. But we don’t need multi-storeyed apartment blocks or parking complexes stuck to the walls of Humayun’s Tomb, just like we don’t need cellphone towers atop the Charminar. We wouldn’t mind walking a few 100 metres more or not having mobile connectivity for a few minutes. That may prove to be the healthier way out.

The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi

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First published on: 25-01-2017 at 12:02:52 am
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