People don’t come to the Gateway of India to gape at the stones put up by the British to remind us of our slavery. They come there to relieve themselves.” That isn’t fiction.
|The recently revised heritage list for Mumbai has drawn much flak. Irate citizens claim that many of the items on that list have no value worth preserving
That was the actual submission made by a lawyer whose feistiness seemed to be directly proportional to his seniority, on behalf of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
The statement was bizarre, but perhaps no more than the case that drew it, a public interest litigation to protect an old, small structure near the Gateway, on the access road to the Taj Mahal Hotel.
The structure in question was, incredibly, a public toilet and it stood in the middle of the road that the BMC proposed to widen. The argument was that this edifice needed to be preserved because it had ‘heritage value’.
The case was forever known, at least on this side of the Bar, as the Taj heritage loo case. The case and its reaction emphasise the polarised views to almost any proposal at conservation and preservation.
There are those who claim that it is an impediment, and that the structures sought to be preserved are merely dilapidated with no redeeming value. Proponents claim that it is necessary if we are not to lose every semblance of our past.
The voices of those who live and occupy these structures are equally divided. Heritage protection is now law. In Mumbai, since 1995, it has been included in the regulations that control the city’s development.
A very long list is drawn up. It proposes individual structures, precincts, areas and natural forms, and it grades these, and these grades in turn dictate future development. The list and its grades are subject to public consultation, after a fashion.
The recently published revised heritage list for Mumbai has drawn much flak. Irate citizens claim that many of the items on that list have no value worth preserving. Some show the errors in this list, such as the inclusion of buildings long gone.
At least part of the problem is the nature of this heritage protection law, and this applies as much to Mumbai as it does to every other city in India that has something like it.
It is a restrictive or prohibitory statute, created and enforced by people who, its opponents claim, are unaffected by these restrictions. The public consultation is limited to considering suggestions, and these may or may not be accepted.
This criticism isn’t without justification. A voluble proponent of all things heritage once claimed that bathroom taps could not be changed, though these only provided lukewarm and ice-cold running rust, and that written permission was needed to install mosquito meshnetting on window frames.
Because old, therefore good; this kind of heritage evangelism is surreal, and is its own worst enemy, not least because of its inherent daftness. The problem is significantly exacerbated in areas that have rent control.
If a structure is both tenanted, and therefore subject to rent control, which means that rents are pegged at some meaningless level, and heritage restrictions are loaded on, the result is a diminished standard of habitation for the tenant and a deteriorating property value for the owner.
Even for structures that aren’t tenanted but have long since fallen into disuse, such as abandoned mills and factories, to say that these must be preserved in their ruinous condition or that an owner must spend lavishly to restore something with no prospect of making any modifications to facilitate more modern needs is to score a self-goal.
In its current form, heritage law makes two tragic assumptions: first, that a small coterie knows what’s best for the entire city; and, second, that citizens are too infantile to know what’s good for them. That is precisely the wrong way to go about things.
At least in Mumbai, this seems to be changing: news reports indicate that there are now proposals to provide fiscal and financial incentives to owners of heritage properties. That is long overdue, and should have been done in the first place, and it goes a long way to addressing a fundamental failure of heritage protection law: making it participatory rather than prohibitory.
Canvassing views isn’t enough; people must want to protect and conserve their properties and the law must give them enough reason to do this. There are areas in every city that are worth preserving: for their architecture, for their spacing, for the quality of life these forms provide. Equally, there are areas we must be prepared to let go or allow to change to meet changing needs.
Not every architectural detail and every ramshackle structure is worth keeping. Heritage conservation in every city would be far more effective, and efficient, if it was more nuanced and had a more fine-grained approach, and if the law actually tempted citizens into becoming part of the heritage conservation enterprise.
What heritage conservationists must do is to convince citizens that heritage protection is about more than pickling a city in a desperate attempt to hold on to some dimly remembered past; that we need it to remind us of where we came from, and where we are headed; and that a city without a past is a city without a future.