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Vanishing treasures

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST



To stem the steady tide of destruction of Mumbai's unique architectural treasures, the Heritage Conservation Committee needs to be strengthened with powers to enforce its decisions.

in Mumbai

THE 1995 Mumbai Heritage Regulations were welcomed by conservationists and citizens who valued history. Although the regulations did not forbid development, they provided instead for an expert inter-disciplinary group, the Heritage Conservation Committee, to determine the suitability of any development project. Such oversight was what was needed to stop the mindless demolition of Mumbai's magnificent architectural heritage.

A great deal has been achieved by the committee. It can take credit for saving much of Mumbai's Victorian Neo-Gothic and art deco architecture. Heritage precincts have been created, citizen awareness has been generated, and public consciousness about issues such as the indiscriminate installation of hoardings is now quite high. But, it is time for some progression. More powers are necessary for the Heritage Committee to work more effectively.

In its present incarnation, the committee is only an advisory body working with the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. It lacks statutory status and has no powers to enforce even its own regulations. It depends on the municipality to take punitive action.

Opinion within the Heritage Committee is divided about its status. While some members want the committee to be bestowed with more powers, D.M. Sukthankar, its chairman, and former Municipal Commissioner, is personally against it. He said that the committee should retain its advisory status and leave implementing the law to the Municipal Corporation, which already had the jurisdiction to do so.

Conservation architect and member of the committee Abha Narain Lambah, however, said: "As an advisory body we have no teeth to enforce our regulations. A regulation is just as good as the next notification. We need legislation." City historian and former member of the committee Sharada Dwivedi too agrees that the "committee is doing great work but needs punitive powers". The most serious problem faced by the Heritage Committee is an amendment made to a section of the Development Control Rules. The 1999 amendment was a blatantly populist measure by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by which Grade 3 cessed buildings could be demolished without seeking the heritage committee's permission. Under the heritage regulations, a Grade 3 building could be reconstructed but within the guidelines laid down by the committee. The Sena-BJP amendment changed this. Now, all that is required for building to be allowed to be demolished is a declaration by one structural engineer that it is unsafe.

A spate of applications by building owners eager to get rid of the "white elephants" and cash in on the property market resulted in a drastically changed skyline. Even heritage precincts were not spared. The Girgaum heritage precinct was particularly affected. Skyscrapers as tall as 12 floors rose where once three- or four-storeyed buildings stood, in contravention of the heritage rules. The rules state that in the few cases when new construction is permitted within a heritage precinct the buildings should not be higher than the average height of the existing structures. Persons who have built new highrises on the sites of their demolished buildings argue that heritage regulations permit them to use the excess floor space index (FSI) of their old structures, thereby allowing them to construct highrises.

Sukthankar said that the amendment brought by the Sena-BJP government "sounded the death knell of important heritage precincts such as Gamdevi, Khotachiwadi and Matharpakadi. We made a strong representation to get the amendment reversed but the government has not responded, possibly because it wants to appease tenants and builders."

IMPLEMENTING heritage regulations is difficult. Apart from strictures, they offer little else. The upkeep of the buildings places a huge financial burden on landlords, who resent not being able to capitalise on their assets. Instead of being able to demolish the old structures and build new ones they are forced to maintain buildings with no financial assistance from the government. Abha Narain Lambah said: "The stakes are just too high. There is a head-on collision between economics and heritage."

One of the incentives devised to overcome this was the concept of heritage TDR or Transfer of Development Rights. "Heritage TDR has been a great help," said Jamsheed Kanga, retired Commissioner of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and a former Chairman of the Heritage Committee. The principle behind the TDR is to compensate landlords by allowing them to use the unused FSI that their heritage building is eligible for. There are two ways of using the TDR. One is for a heritage building owner to sell his or her TDR to a builder, who then utilises it in another part of the island city. The other method is for the owner to utilise the TDR himself/herself by building a new structure in the same compound, if there is space, without demolishing the old one.

It was hoped that the TDR would prevent the re-occurrence of ghastly hybrids such as Buckley Court, in which the facade of the old building was preserved and a new structure was built immediately behind. But it has also been misused as the Girgaum precinct shows, and unfortunately, overused as in the instance of Taraporewalla Mansion in the old Cuffe Parade area. Abha Narain Lambah said: "Not enough of a study has been done on the impact of the TDR. When extra FSI is used in another area, it impacts the water supply, the traffic, the roads. A ward-wise or infrastructure-wise study of the impact is required."

One of the greatest hurdles for heritage conservation is the Tenancy and Rent Control Act, which restricts landlords from evicting old tenants or increasing rents. Esplanade Mansion or Watson's Hotel, as it was previously known, is a case in point. Since it is a Grade 2A building and is located in the Fort heritage precinct, using the additional FSI on site is not a proposition for the owner. The building is among the first cast iron structures constructed in India and was the venue for the screening of the Lumiere Brothers moving film just six months after it had been screened in Paris. Thus, the building holds high architectural and heritage credentials.

The building's residents pay rents on the old scale. Like many other landlords, the owner of Esplanade Mansion has attempted to maximise his income by dividing and subdividing the rooms, adding illegal mezzanine floors and putting little money back into the building's upkeep, with the result that the building is slowly falling apart. A conservation report has been prepared by the Urban Design Research Institute, supported by the Renzo Piano Workshop Foundation. Renzo Piano, who is the architect of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, had himself seen Esplanade Mansion and, deeply impressed by the building, said it was worthy of conservation. The report records the distressing condition of the building. It says that, "some cast iron members have not only been subjected to severe corrosion but are also exhibiting cracks as a result of inconsistent loading". The report proposes the generation of funds with the participation of the occupants, external corporate sources and trusts and with government grants. While the owner remained inaccessible to Frontline, his intention regarding the building seems to be to let it fall into ruin. He has even refused to let conservationist and heritage groups paint the exterior of the building at their cost. The committee's advisory status deprives them of any powers to penalise the owner.

Unless pride in one's heritage is the motivating factor, conservation efforts will be an imposition on an unwilling citizenry. Jamsheed Kanga recounts an incident in Mumbai's Pydhonie area where the trustees of an old Jain temple wanted to demolish the structure and build a new one. Although the structure was not on the heritage list, an attempt was made to persuade the trustees to conserve the original building. They disagreed and hastened the destruction of the temple by ripping the roof off the structure. When a tarpaulin was put up by the Heritage Committee to save it from the elements, the trustees had it removed. "Finally we let it go," said Jamsheed Kanga.

Apart from its own efforts, the committee relies on citizen consciousness for preservation. This, in turn, is only possible if every listed structure is made to stand out from its surroundings as a living museum piece. But the money required for preservation or even for something as simple as a plaque or a fence around the structure has to be found from corporate sources since there is nothing allocated by the government. A trickle of funds is also available via the Mumbai Metropolitan Region's Heritage Conservation Society, but public buildings get priority over private ones for finance.

Support is also required from landlords, both the ones who own individual buildings and organisations such as religious missions, the Railways, the Mumbai Municipality and the armed forces. Jamsheed Lambah believes that though the armed forces tend to follow the dictate `if it moves, salute it, and if it doesn't, paint it' they have an overall responsible attitude to architectural heritage. The confidence is belied somewhat by the demolition of three of four bungalows listed as Grade 2B and described by the Heritage Committee's pink book as "the last surviving examples of the original scale of buildings in this area, excluding barrack structures, and typical to Colaba only". Highrise buildings stand in place of the three demolished bungalows, dwarfing the solitary one that remains. Also lost is a small but exquisite marble water fountain that existed in upper Colaba in south Mumbai. The fountain was listed under Grade 2A. Under no circumstances could it be demolished or removed from its setting. But that is exactly what happened. It no longer exists and no one, including members of the committee, was aware of this. In its place stands a structure that is supposedly meant to be a fountain. It looks more like a crude piece of plumbing.

The Mumbai Municipal Corporation comes in for particular criticism by the Heritage Committee. Jamsheed Lambah said: "Twenty-eight municipal buildings are on the heritage list but these are sadly not well maintained. The municipality requires a mid-career training programme in conservation practice for its engineering and maintenance staff so that the fate of structures like Crawford Market is not subject to neglect and disrepair." Until recently the municipality had no budget specifically for heritage conservation, but a fund has now been established. Finance will be available through a pre-qualification process.

When municipal apathy is so obvious for listed heritage buildings the plight of other old but unlisted buildings, in the city cannot even be imagined. The Building and Factory Department of the Mumbai Municipality is riddled with corruption. "Take away the corruption and that department will fall apart," a conservationist said in jest. "Permission for illegal construction is granted rapidly once palms are greased, and then complaints by citizens are ignored by the authorities." A large part of the problem is the rampant commercialisation of residential areas. The heat generated from huge air-conditioning units in closed spaces gradually affects old buildings, often causing fires. Shops invariably advance onto the pavement in an effort to gain more space, which adds to the overall value at the time of resale. Architecturally speaking, commercialisation destroys building frontages. Name boards of shops are randomly erected without any sense of proportion; old balconies, often with exquisite wrought iron grills, are walled in.

Many old buildings do not find a place on the heritage conservation list because the external architecture is not striking. However, the material used inside is usually breathtaking. Minton tiles, etched Venetian glass and Burma teak rafters are all worth preserving but unfortunately do not (and cannot) fall within the purview of a city's administration that prefers the epithet of boom town to grand old city.

It is unlikely that the new heritage list that is being prepared will include any of these structures. Many old structures that deserve to be on the list were left out of the first list, especially those in suburbs such as Bandra, which holds a wealth of architectural treasures. Speaking about the first list, Jamsheed Kanga explained: "We hurriedly listed about 600 buildings in order to catch the Development Control Rules, which would be listed by 1991." The hurried list resulted in some aberrations, which, it is hoped, will be sorted out in the new list.

While heritage conservation is seen by many as elitist and far removed from the city's real problems, the truth is that the regulations are not just a matter of preserving architectural gems of past eras. Though that is the core intention, ground realities have forced the Heritage Committee to take a more pragmatic stance and incorporate the points of view of landlords and tenants while making decisions. Often this has meant letting go of some old structures, but the committee hopes to work out a balance by which crucial examples of buildings and precincts are conserved. D.M. Sukthankar said: "Precincts should be compact and not keep expanding. We should distinctly identify a precinct and then there should be no compromise. We should ruthlessly enforce regulations." Cooperation from the government is important but while the heritage committee has done its groundwork the government continues to drag its feet over the declaration of precincts. Meanwhile, the old buildings keep making way for new ones.

Consider the example of Taraporewalla Mansion. The Cuffe Parade area is a notified precinct but the formal notification is still pending. Most of the old structures have been lost and those that exist have been partly transformed for modern conveniences. The mansion exists on the narrow strip of south Mumbai where the island literally tapers off into the sea. The area has had to bear all the pressures of being prime real estate.

A stunning example of the Edwardian-villa style, the mansion is on the heritage conservation list and is listed as a Grade 2B structure. Conservation architects agree that the building with its twin domes, deep verandah and ornate pillars is a striking example of the late 19th-century architecture in British India. They say it undoubtedly possesses "special architectural and aesthetic merit", is also a local landmark, and had the additional qualification of being the home of the author Mulk Raj Anand - all recommendations for a Grade 2B building.

Yet, the character of this building is going to be drastically altered, and that too with the permission of the Heritage Conservation Committee in what some see as a "terrible compromise" and others as an "innovation solution". While the main structure of the building is to be preserved, permission has been granted to demolish the service quarters at the rear where a multistoried building will be constructed. A former member of the Heritage Committee said: "It is likely to go the Buckley Court way." It is also suspected that a sizable extent of the original structure will be demolished since it occupied almost all the land.

The government's reluctance to declare old Cuffe Parade a heritage precinct is primarily because it is a prime real estate area. But, in what can only be described as short-sighted pandering to builders, the government is creating a situation in which tremendous strain will be put on local infrastructure.

If seen purely from a heritage point of view, granting permission to build the new structure in the compound of the old Taraporewalla Mansion is actually a terrible decision. A building is not just a structure, its setting is invaluable to any appreciation of it. Needless to say an Edwardian-villa backed by a modern highrise does not make for perfect aesthetics. However, the Heritage Committee has accepted a give-and-take approach to conservation. Unfortunately, the committee is not getting enough in return. The question, though rhetorical, now remains, why is the government not meeting the committee at least quarter of the way and why is there resistance to accepting regulations that will help to regulate the growth of the city as well as preserve heritage? The answer comes from a former bureaucrat who said candidly: "When there are conflicting interests of heritage and economics the government will support the more powerful one." In such a situation it is imperative that the Heritage Committee be granted statutory status and accompanying powers, or else there is no future for the architectural heritage of Mumbai.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 16, 2004.)



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