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Erasing Mumbai’s past cannot build its future

columns Updated: Mar 31, 2015 22:40 IST
Gateway of India

Can the iconic Gateway of India be razed for new construction or have modern structures clutter its Indo-Saracenic resplendence? This is a possibility, if the proposed Development Plan (DP) 2014-34 is anything to go by. Not only the Gateway of India, but tens of other landmarks in Mumbai that lend the city its unique mix of architectural styles, could, theoretically speaking, make way for new constructions.

Nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1,500 heritage structures, sites and precincts are not marked and mapped in the DP, as conservationists point out. If further proof was needed that the DP was deeply flawed, this is it. The official approach to heritage and its conservation stands reversed from all plans of the last two decades. The heritage regulations were given a legal framework in April 1995 when the Sena-BJP government took office. Conservationists, worn down by the battle waged since late 1980s and sceptical of the new government, were pleasantly surprised as it formalised the landmark heritage regulations.

The battle between conservation of the city’s heritage and its construction-led development had been settled in favour of the former. Often joining forces with conservationists and NGOs in this battle were officers of the BMC and the state. Two of them stand out: Jamshed Kanga, then municipal commissioner, and DT Joseph, then urban development department secretary.

They understood what heritage conservation meant, sought to work it into the DP, and at key moments, took the lead to make hit a reality. In fact, the first concrete move for heritage conservation came from the urban development department, the fount of so many misdeeds in the recent past. In a letter to conservation groups, it proposed to include a new chapter on conservation in the Development Control Regulations 1991. Activists still had to fight to strengthen regulations and make the heritage list comprehensive, but the official intent favoured conservation.

Ironically, 20 years later and steered by another set of officers, conservation has received its biggest setback. Not only are structures and sites in the Heritage List of 2012 not included in the DP, but the renowned ones have been omitted. And construction norms for Grade III sites have been relaxed. Is this by default or design?

The Grade I structures, such as the Gateway of India, are notified and protected as heritage monuments; their legal status cannot be stripped away only because they have been left out of the DP. It would be naïve to assume that new construction can replace them, that too without fierce battles by conservationists. For these to be erased off the map, a Government Resolution would be needed. However builder-friendly the Fadnavis government is, it is unlikely to issue such as a GR.

But there is a serious concern: dilution of heritage conservation. There are nearly 1,000 omissions, far too many major monuments have not been mapped, norms for construction in Grade III structures have been eased and the Heritage Committee’s powers have been disturbed. It is hard to believe that all these are oversights or bureaucratic bungling. Default errors can be corrected. Deliberately designed mistakes can be more difficult, if not impossible, to set right.

The proposed DP sends out signals that neither heritage nor its conservation matter to the planners now rushing to cast the city as an international finance centre. Erasing Mumbai’s past is not the way to build its future.

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