CONSERVE WITHOUT HURTING
At a pre-diwali dinner, I was cornered by a businessman frustrated by his inability to knock down a newly acquired property in Delhi’s Green Park area to build a house to his liking. Clearly inspired by repeated terrorist strikes, he expressed his desire to ‘blowup’ the 15th century tomb within whose vicinity stood his plot—thus preventing the proposed development.
Conservation areas in European World Heritage Cities include thousands of private buildings. Nine thousand ‘conservation areas’ exist in the UK alone, where over 6,50,000 private homeowners require permission to even change the colour of the front door. Yet, there is public appreciation of heritage: the National Trust in the UK has a membership of over 20,00,000 people, far larger than the 7,000 countrywide membership of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage ( INTACH).
So why as a nation do we have such disregard for our built heritage?
A legacy of colonial rule has been the legislation that relied on punishment for those who caused damage to India’s built heritage. More than six decades after independence we continue to reinforce penalties—ineffective penalties—without any consideration of incentives. In India, where disregard for the law is evident everywhere, conservation can be successful only when people—owners of heritage properties, residents of conservation areas, real estate businesses, tourism industry, amongst others— can benefit from it.
In 1992, following rapid destruction and building in the setting of monuments across India, a law was enacted to create a 100 m ‘prohibited building zone’ and an extended 300 m ‘regulated building zone’ around each of the 3,650 monuments of national importance. The Act should have included incentives to those who could no longer develop their properties legally to the extent possible by those outside heritage zones. Affected owners could have been given rights of land-use change, thus allowing commercial use in residential areas. They should have been given transferable development rights to allow them to either ‘sell’ or utilise undeveloped portions elsewhere. At the very least, a simple mechanism to address applications in the ‘regulated zone’ could have been put in place.
In 2010 Parliament enacted the National Monument Authority with the very sensible mandate to create local area plans for all protected monuments in order to rationalise the prohibited and regulated areas. Yet clauses in the Act such as specifying that ‘members of the authority do not reside within 100 m of a protected monument’ display a suspicious nature towards civil society—a hangover from colonial rule.
Despite preventive laws, constructions continue unabated in heritage areas, especially in conservation areas such as Tughlaqabad, Mehrauli, Shahjahanabad of Delhi. Several of our important monuments, including protected monuments like the spectacular tomb of Atgah Khan, Emperor Akbar’s minister, which stands in Nizamuddin Basti, are today occupied by several families. Yet there are no incentives, such as alternate flats to encourage relocation, leading to improved quality of life and in turn preservation of our irreplaceable national heritage.
In addition to the ASI, state departments of archaeology and municipalities also have mandates to conserve. They follow the ‘penalty’ rather than the ‘incentive’ approach.
In European countries where preserving the built heritage is taken as a serious responsibility by government, multi-disciplinary specialised teams comprising architects, conservation architects, urban planners, landscape architects, urban designers, craft guilds, civil society groups, archaeologists, engineers and business interests are created at each level of government from municipality to central government to ensure effective conservation. In India, not even the ASI has access to human resources required to make conservation effective.
Public anger and disregard for heritage only grow when agencies such as the Delhi Metro or Public Works Departments repeatedly flout the norms with impunity; especially since it is the mega projects like elevated metro lines or roadways through heritage areas cause more damage than private houses 100 m from a monument.
Conservation is possible only when we can ensure that people benefit from conservation not only through incentives but through improved quality of life such as access to health, education, sanitation, for communities residing in heritage areas. Such effort will also encourage tourism and revenue generation, creating wealth that can be ploughed back into conservation-led development. Not only for the sake of our past but for our future too.
Despite preventive laws, constructions continue unabated in heritage areas. Authorities also follow the ‘penalty’ rather than the ‘incentive’ approach.