Why cities like Bengaluru fail to protect heritage

What can citizens do to save heritage in the city? What can cities like Bengaluru do to save heritage?

Bengaluru bleeds from a million unkind cuts. Any long term resident feels the steady erosion of their city, an unsightly metamorphosis that is not planned, owned or desired.

Heritage is one such. We tend to close our eyes in pain at what’s gone in our city, and try to continue keeping them squeezed shut, at the possibility of the heritage that is further going, as we speak. Ugly plastic protective sheets hang where the remnants of our identity and city heritage used to be.  So what do we do? Is now too late already? Or shall we seize the moment, detach ourselves from the losses already suffered, and attempt to create a framework to preserve not only what is left of the city, but also as a collective insurance for the future, for the next generation?

Frustrated by the sweeping damage to central heritage proposed last year during the Steel Flyover Beda campaign, I set up a change.org petition bit.ly/HeritageBeku. I was pleased to see that one aspect, i.e, focus on advocacy, framework and legislation has been given a hearing. In addition, it was a shot in the arm to see the government focus on Heritage move up from a terse single page in the Revised Master Plan of 2015 to a more broad-based and inclusive 35+ pages in the recent Revised Master Plan proposal of 2031! It impelled a few like-minded people like me, buttressed with academic and expert inputs to set up a core working group called HeritageBeku/Past Forward to flesh out the next steps for a crowd-sourced Citizen Charter on Heritage. So perhaps all is not lost and let us be optimistic that maybe there is resonance and concern on Heritage in the corridors of power.

Yes, over half our heritage in the last ten years is gone, and there is neither collective ownership of heritage nor a mechanism to tabulate and enforce it. We do know that heritage covers not only built heritage, ie buildings and areas around us, but also cultural and natural heritage – our city festivals , our lakes and trees. Cities like Mumbai, Delhi , Ahmedabad and others have created a robust process and thereby managed to conserve a fair amount.

While a good implementation and enforcement methodology is undoubtedly required, one would assume that legislation would be undertaken on a national level. However the National Commission for Heritage Sites, a bill tabled in Parliament in 2009 was withdrawn in 2015 after consultations with  concerned stakeholders, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), National Monuments Authority (NMA) as well as Ministries of Urban Development, Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Mumbai seems to be the only place with real legislation in place. as the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act was amended in 1994 to protect heritage buildings and precincts and penalize unauthorized changes to them.

So we agree heritage is important, but what ails its dissemination?

  • It suffers from poor branding. Heritage is often used as a stick that prevents a city’s economic and infrastructure growth. The ‘cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs’ excuse to destroy heritage has been conveniently used and overused by vested interests against heritage conservation. This is laughable as there is no polarized either/or choice. Cities like London, Prague, Hong Kong and several others have demonstrated time and again how economy and infrastructure can grow alongside of a thriving heritage city character.
  • It suffers from an elitist tag. Heritage is not something that belongs to a few, but is owned by the city and communities. So a proper mapping, comprehensively covering what is intrinsically important to all community members is important.
  • The impact of heritage on tourism has not been leveraged. Heritage creates a robust and constant cash pipeline if  properly promoted. Global Heritage cities are keenly aware of the impact on employment,  growth of ancillary services & industries. The Department of Education too  needs to showcase living heritage as constant reminder of our identity , history and roots.
  • Once gone, heritage can never come back in its true sense. Authorities seem to miss this in their rush to achieve economic goals and deadlines. Whether it is a lake or a building that  was obliterated, the sense of identity it gave us, is impossible to reclaim.
  • Not enough has been done to familiarize children and future generations about heritage. A mall and a heritage park cannot be enjoyed in the same way.
  • Incentivisation for private heritage ownership is a far more complex issue than public heritage, and needs true public discourse and participation to sensitively address. A Heritage fund, tax incentives, endowments, maintenance fund et al are required to work with the custodian, given the absolute and fundamental rights owners have to enjoy their property.

While we can talk about what needs to be done on the overall framework, let’s be appreciative that the Revised Master Plan (RMP) gives Bengaluru a small window of opportunity to properly push through, showcase and reflect citizen’s ownership and views of their own city heritage.

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