We need to take our heritage sites more seriously

We need to take our heritage sites more seriously

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Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’

Year 2019 was a year of mixed luck for the heritage lovers. There were some good as well as bad news on heritage front. However, the kind of risks our heritage sites are facing today call for a rethink on our strategy towards heritage conservation and its preservation.

The Walled City of Jaipur, known for its iconic architectural legacy and vibrant culture, made its entry into UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2017, Ahmedabad city was declared India’s first heritage city by UNESCO. Last year, UNESCO declared Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles as World Heritage Site.  With this, India’s 30 cultural sites, 7 natural sites and one mixed site are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Further, there are 42 sites on UNESCO’s tentative list pending final decision.

While the UNESCO was kind towards Indian heritage sites, our weather Gods were not. This year’s Monsoon was heavy in certain parts of the country. Several monuments at the heritage site of Hampi along the Tungabhadra river were inundated, not once but four times during this year’s Monsoon. The old stone bridge ruins connecting Vittala Temple with Chandramouleshwara Temple constructed by the Vijayanagara kings also remained under water owing to the heavy rainfall and increasing water level in the river.  Now the conservation of this site is an uphill task and we have to wait watch (in 2020) how it will be carried out.

A number of heritage laws have been enacted in independent India, both at the state and national level. These laws and regulations, however, have no specific reference to disasters where heritage sites are involved. This is unfortunate, given that the importance of preserving a country’s built heritage cannot be overemphasised. Its not just floods but many forms of disasters put India’s built heritage at serious risk. Earthquakes, cyclones, and tsunamis threaten serious damage to monuments and other historical structures.

According to some study, India is amongst the countries in the world with the highest risk of natural disasters, ranking third in the number of disaster events, second in the number of disaster victims, and fifth in economic damage on account of natural disasters. These disasters are in the form of earthquakes, fires, floods, cyclones and drought. In recent years, climate change has only increased the risk of disasters.

Eventhough in 2009 the Government of India issued a comprehensive National Disaster Management Framework that combines pre-disaster aspects of prevention, mitigation and preparedness along with post-disaster issues of response, recovery and reconstruction, heritage conservation remains absent from the disaster management framework. Protection of heritage places is the lowest priority among the disaster managers in the event of disasters. Considering the frequency with which we have been experiencing disasters, one after another, there is urgent need to integrate the rehabilitation of the heritage structure in Disaster Management (DM) at the national and local levels.

But overall, it appears that the government’s interest on monuments and heritage sites is only till it is inscribed on the UNESCO list and once the goal is achieved it has the tendency to leave it unattended. Look at the Ahmedabad city.  once the goal is achieved leave it unattended. Look at the Ahmedabad city. Two years after Ahmedabad’s Walled City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage City, several of the architectural treasures that helped it bag a place on this hallowed list have been found either altered or completely demolished. This tendency need to be changed and unless the government takes the lead in preserving the heritage sites manmade disasters too will add to our cup of woes.

A nation’s heritage, after all, bestows upon its people both identity, and pride in their past; it connects the past generations to the present and the future. For India, too—home to a multitude of faiths and cultures—the celebration of the country’s cultural diversity is a means of building solidarity.