HT Column: Not just the new DP, Mumbai’s urban heritage list is baffling too

  • Manoj Nair, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2015 16:41 IST

While details of its new Development Plan continue to confuse and amuse the city, the list of Mumbai’s protected architectural sites is equally baffling.

The list grades monuments and sites into four levels after looking at their historical and architectural importance. One inventory of such sites was created in 1995; another list was released in July 2012. Many buildings have moved up and down the list, apparently without the owners and occupants of many of these buildings knowing about these changes.

Take the case of the Bhikha Behram Well, also known as the Parsi well, near Churchgate station. The well, which dates back to AD 1725, is a sacred site for Zoroastrians and was listed in 1995 as a grade I structure, giving it the highest level of protection from destruction and alterations. The top grading also recognises its historical and cultural importance, and also its well-preserved condition.

The 2012 list has proposed moving the well down to IIA — the next level of grading that provides protection, but not completely, against modifications and demolition. Inexplicably, members of the trust that manages the well are not aware of these proposed changes. Trustees Burjor Antia and Viraf Kapadia both have not heard of the proposal to change the well’s heritage grading. As far as they know, the last grading — from 1995 — is still in force.

Jer Mahal, whose balconied façade dominates the Dhobi Talao street junction, has moved from grade III to IIB. The occupants of this building are not aware of this change.

Many landmarks in south Mumbai, such as the National Gallery of Modern Art at Kala Ghoda; the Institute of Science, opposite the Regal cinema, the Brihanmumbai Mumbai Corporation headquarters; the Central Telegraph Office, Hutatma Chowk, and the Public Works Department building, have moved up the heritage list to Grade I from IIA, giving them the same heritage status as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Buildings such as St Xavier’s College, Residency (Esplanade) Magistrate Court, Small Causes Court, Dhobi Talao; ENT Hospital and Cathedral and John Connon School have moved from IIB to a higher grade IIA.

Similarly, the Pydhonie police station, the Goan Institute building at Chira Bazar, Wilson College and Christ Church, Byculla, have been upgraded to IIB. Other structures, like the Byculla and Reay Road railway stations, Mount Mary basilica and Electric House (the headquarters of BEST Undertaking) have dropped to IIA.

Vikas Dilawari, conservation architect and member of the municipal heritage committee, explained the downgrading. “Can you compare the Reay Road and Byculla railway station buildings to the BMC headquarters and the Taj Mahal Hotel?” asked Dilawari. “We need to have a fool-proof method to give these buildings the right grading.”

Some of the changes in the listings are welcome. The Sardar Griha Guest House building , near Crawford Market, a building that has association with Lokmanya Tilak – he lived there for some time - has moved from grade III to IIB, giving it a higher level of protection from obliteration; but Godfrey Pimenta, a lawyer who has studied the listings, said he has reasons to believe that the grading is done arbitrarily. “I can vouch for that,” he said, giving the example of well-preserved cottages in East Indian enclaves such as Bamanwada near Sahar that have been left out of the list, while precincts like Khotachiwadi in Girgaum, that have similar houses, have been protected by heritage laws.

Conservation architect Chetan Raikar, a former member of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Committee, said any classification is subject to the personal opinion of the architect.

“The Committee (MMRHCC) appoints architects who do the listings of structures that need protection. A lot of technique and hard work goes in to the listing,” said Raikar, part of the restoration plan of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. “But in every case it is the individual’s perception. So it is always a biased opinion.”

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