42nd session of the World Heritage Committee held in Manama in Bahrain from 24th June to 4th July had some good news for heritage lovers in general and those in Mumbai in particular. In that meeting, Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This announcement came close on the heels of Ahmedabad finding a place in the UNESCO World Heritage List last year. At present, there are 1092 sites spread over 167 countries that are inscribed in this list.
In order to get inscribed on the World Heritage list, the sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. For example, Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles were included in the list as they found ‘to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.’ These criteria are explained in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention which, besides the text of the Convention, is the main working tool on World Heritage. The criteria are regularly revised by the Committee to reflect the evolution of the World Heritage concept itself. Until the end of 2004, World Heritage sites were selected on the basis of six cultural and four natural criteria. With the adoption of the revised Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, only one set of ten criteria exists.
Indeed, getting listed on World Heritage List is not a simple thing but a lengthy and laborious process and in case of Mumbai, there were several unsung heroes like Abha Narain Lambah who worked behind the scenes to get this recognition. But, once the name gets listed, is it the end of everything or is it just the beginning of something new? What does it mean for a site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List?
World Heritage Site as a recognition is a prestigious thing and monument, structure or location or the city where it is located gets immediate recognition globally. One of the immediate beneficiaries of this recognition is perhaps the tourism industry. Ahmedabad has seen 13% increase in foreign tourists visiting the city in 2017-18 and nearly 40% of the participants in the heritage walk conducted in the city are foreigners. It is reported that there is a spike in the Indian tourists too visiting Ahmedabad post World Heritage Site recognition in 2017.
It is also true that once the site gets inscribed on the World Heritage List, the resulting prestige often helps to raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation. Greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties.
Further, once the site gets World Heritage Site tag it becomes eligible for financial assistance granted to the State Parties to the World Heritage Convention, in order to help them protect the cultural or natural heritage sites inscribed on the World Heritage List or on the List of World Heritage in Danger. However, only State Parties to the World Heritage Convention are eligible for financial assistance and individuals, foundations, IGOs and NGOs are not eligible for submitting International Assistance requests under the World Heritage Fund. While disbursing assistance priority is given to the most threatened properties. Since 1978, 2082 requests for financial assistance have been approved involving financial assistance of $44.27 million.
But with benefits also come some responsibilities, even if we don’t want them. At the very outset, it should be noted that by joining the World Heritage Convention, nation states are pledged to care for the World Heritage Sites in their territory as part of protecting their national heritage, as well as to protection of their cultural and natural heritage as a whole. Getting inscription on World Heritage List is not a prize which is won but is a recognition which we have received – a recognition that a site is of sufficient importance to be the responsibility of the international community as a whole. Naturally with such recognition come responsibilities too. The most important responsibility on our shoulder now is to protect and maintain the site and its surroundings to the highest standards. The responsibility is too huge considering the fact that the site is located in Mumbai, one of the most populated cities in the world, which often faces the toughest choice between conservation and development. But we are left with no other choice but to put in our best efforts as the judgment will be made by the entire international community.
It should be further noted that no additional statutory controls follow from the inscription of a site onto the World Heritage List. At the same time, inscription highlights the outstanding international importance of the site as a key material consideration to be taken into account by the Municipal Corporation and other planning authorities in determining planning and development of the area. Both the Municipal Corporation (BMC in this case) and local planning authorities (like MMRDA) may have to formulate specific planning policies for protecting these sites and include these policies in their spatial strategies and development plans. It follows that development proposals must be scrutinised for their likely effect on the site or its setting in the longer term. In case of Mumbai, one of the proposed Metro line passes through this area and its impact, both at the time of development and operation, may have to be reviewed in the light of new global recognition.
The Government is required to inform UNESCO World Heritage Committee of any significant developments which might affect a World Heritage Site or its setting. Third parties can also contact the UNESCO World Heritage Centre directly. Further, the Government must report to UNESCO every six years on the state of conservation of World Heritage Site. Remember, failure to satisfy the World Heritage Committee on conservation issues can result in the site being placed on the List of World Heritage In Danger with conditions for improvement attached.
It is foolhardy to expect some automatic benefits emanating immediately upon the inscription. Such benefits may indeed follow inscription, but only where sites have worked to achieve them. Additional local, national and indeed international prestige may accompany inscription but that will come with cost attached to it in the form of increased and closer scrutiny of development activities around the heritage site. However, one thing will be sure – World Heritage Site status will increase local pride and raise awareness of conservation issues.