Conservation diary

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

The book is an account of the authors pioneering work in the conservation of Indias architectural and environmental heritage.

MEMOIRS usually make interesting reading and when they are the memoirs of a vocal and dynamic campaigner there is the added anticipation of reading about what really happened behind the scenes. So when Heritage and Environment: An Indian Diary by Shyam Chainani was released, it was certainly something to look forward to.

The book is Shyam Chainanis account of his work in the conservation and regulation of Indias architectural and environmental heritage. The authors involvement with what is entirely a social cause is all the more selfless considering his own academic background.

How many people with Indian Institute of Technology, Cambridge or Massachusetts Institute of Technology credentials would spend a large part of their lives battling a stubborn system?

Chainani certainly had such credentials and, no doubt, the opportunities to sink comfortably into a creamy-layer lifestyle, but he instead opted to be a moanie as the authors cousin laughingly refers to activists who are always moaning about issues. Like most people who persist with their passion, Chainani had no map of where he was going.

In the early days he was responding to individual situations such as preventing the construction of a bridge or getting involved in a battle to save a particularly beautiful old building from demolition. It was only later that the momentum from these individual battles built into a movement and Chainani and other like-minded people got together to form the Bombay Environmental Action Group in 1977, an organisation that continues to be active.

He is currently a member of the governing body of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Chainanis involvement with public issues resulted in him serving on no less that 10 State, Central or court-appointed committees. And he has done path-breaking work that led to policymaking and legislation in the field of conservation of heritage and the environment.

He was particularly instrumental in the enactment of the Heritage Regulations, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, and regulations involving cantonments and other Acts.

Chainanis involvement with public issues began when he was employed with the Tata group. In a manner that was to become a trademark, he had a major difference of opinion with J.R.D. Tata on an important environmental issue. This was the plan to build a bridge spanning Mumbai harbour and connecting the island city to the mainland. J.R.D. Tata supported the idea. Chainani opposed it.

The plan was scrapped (despite support from an enthusiastic A.R. Antulay who was then Chief Minister of Maharashtra), apparently because Indira Gandhi supported Chainani and vetoed the project. Interestingly, the plan has resurfaced now 30 years later. The location has been altered and the scrapped Colaba-Uran bridge is now going ahead as the Sewri-Nhava Sheva bridge.

Criticised frequently for his bluntness, Chainani is equally forthright when it comes to praise. In the case of the bridge issue, he is greatly appreciative of the fact that J.R.D. Tata was not personally vindictive towards him. Indeed the Tatas seem to have been particularly fair-minded and have not taken it amiss when Chainanis environmental beliefs clashed with their business interests.

It is something that Chainani appreciates. He writes: Corporate social responsibility is the buzzword these days. I wonder how many of those industry leaders who talk so much about it would behave in the supportive way the Tatas did. If all the Fortune 500 companies followed the Tata example, what a different world it would be.

Chainani minces no words when it comes to telling the inside story. The book is sprinkled with anecdotes written in the dry, no-frills, brisk style that the author uses in his speeches. Without any fuss he describes the numerous hurdles that anyone who opposes the government or big business has had to face. He relates them in such a matter of fact manner that it precludes any objection even from the main obstructionists. The book has been released at an opportune time. When land is viewed in the crass language of real estate and value is measured by square feet of concrete, the book is a reminder of many things.

It reminds one that the mammoth task of initiating the heritage and nature conservation movement was done by a small group of people who were solely motivated by their passion and commitment. How else would you explain the work of Foy Nissen, the man who was responsible for saving many of Mumbais architectural gems? He created a first list of 90 buildings, in what was the beginning of Heritage Listing.

The book also reminds one that heritage and conservation movements in India had their beginnings in Mumbai. The heritage conservation laws in Hyderabad, Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, and Vadodara and in cantonment towns were all inspired by the work started in Mumbai.

If there is any criticism of the book, it has to do with the dull layout, the minimal use of pictures, the lack of captions and the use of a skinny font, which though wonderfully minimalist, is not particularly gentle on the eyes. What is a great relief is that the pages are not glossy. This is a good design decision and an environment-friendly gesture.

The book is aptly titled. It is certainly like a diary or perhaps even like a conversation. It moves with engaging lightness and quickness from anecdotes to issues to policies to personal opinions. It is the equivalent of settling down to a long weekend with a friend whom one has not met for a while there is an element of familiarity and yet there are so many details to be filled in.

The book has a wide audience the casual reader, researcher, student or journalist. It is packed with anecdotes, history and behind-the-scenes information. Written in an effortless, flowing style, the book is an easy page-turner.

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