The pace and impact of development needs to be heritage-led, not real-estate driven | analysis | Hindustan Times
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The pace and impact of development needs to be heritage-led, not real-estate driven

This amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act might be a positive step, for heritage may now be pro-actively engaged in defining the future of a place. The caveat, of course, is that site-specific heritage impact assessments are undertaken in a time-bound manner and with a non-compromising stance. The values and significance of a heritage site must be paramount over the demands and pressures of development.

analysis Updated: Feb 03, 2018 20:37 IST
The India Trade Promotion Organisation realigned its 1.1km Mathura Road-Ring Road underpass cutting through Pragati Maidan as the project was too close to Purana Qila and Sher Shah Suri’s fort
The India Trade Promotion Organisation realigned its 1.1km Mathura Road-Ring Road underpass cutting through Pragati Maidan as the project was too close to Purana Qila and Sher Shah Suri’s fort(HT File )

The recent amendments to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR Act) have led to controversy. The bill amends the 1958 law, which defined a prohibited area as an area of 100 metres around a protected monument and barred construction in this area except under certain conditions. The amended bill now permits construction in prohibited areas for public purposes.

Heritage lovers and experts are unhappy with the amendment for three reasons: First, India’s diverse heritage presents a complex situation but the government has taken an easy way out by trying to solve all problems with a single blanket rule; second, solving a problem seems to be the larger goal of technocrats than ensuring that the proposed solution is the most appropriate one; and finally, these regulations were passed without any meaningful consultation with experts.

Heritage professionals have always contested the idea of 100 metres prohibited area and 200 metres regulated area around the protected monuments and sites. This rule was expected to apply uniformly, but it has not been as effective as it was intended to be. The key counter- argument is to consider each case as unique and devise conservation and development guidelines on the merit and significance of each specific case. This practice is prevalent in many historic European cities such as York and Edinburgh where there is no such blanket regulation prohibiting new construction, but every planning application is evaluated on its own merit by the local government.

In response to this argument, it was suggested that heritage by-laws for all centrally protected sites be prepared. This would help the National Monuments Authority to regulate the conservation and development projects around these sites. Barring a few, a majority of heritage bye-laws did not see the light of the day. Whose failure does this reflect – the professionals and institutions responsible for preparing the by-laws, the sanctioning and approving agency (the NMA), or the government department that ought to be the main driver behind this solution?

This restriction has now been lifted, albeit for limited projects of large scale and public nature only, although the definition of public works could be more concise.

At a philosophical level, this amendment might be a positive step, for heritage may now be pro-actively engaged in defining the future of a place. The caveat, of course, is that site-specific heritage impact assessments are undertaken in a time-bound manner and with a non-compromising stance. The values and significance of a heritage site must be paramount over the demands and pressures of development.

A new kind of development model -- one that is not rampant, invasive and destructive, but sensitive, responsive and inclusive -- needs to be adopted. The pace, nature, and impact of development needs to be heritage-led, rather than real-estate driven.

Consider cities such as Rome, London, and Paris – all of which are dotted with ancient monuments and sites. There is no standardised restriction on construction activity, yet their heritage value is not undermined. Each project is considered on a case-by-case basis and a unique and contextual solution is adopted for each site. Of course, this requires high standards of design creativity, heritage sensitivity and peoples’ appreciation.

Will the public works departments establish and monitor high benchmarks for development around the iconic heritage sites? The answer has to be a yes, if this amendment is to be pro-heritage and one that integrates conservation and development for a larger public good.

The amendment could pose a threat to vulnerable monuments, but it is also an opportunity for hundreds of conservation architects to get engaged in the preparation of heritage impact assessments. Decision-makers must consider these assessments in the best interest of the sites, which are living witnesses of cultural evolution, historical richness, architectural excellence, economic prosperity, artistic appreciation and social inclusion.

Any amendment to the existing regulation is not necessarily detrimental, provided the outcome is for the betterment of cultural heritage and its values are not undermined.

Navin Piplani is a conservation architect and principal director, INTACH Heritage Academy

The views expressed are personal