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Guest Column: What is heritage about Chandigarh?

ByJM Balamurugan
Jan 21, 2024 07:52 AM IST

Chandigarh has its own traditions that transcend generations, but what is the true value of its “heritage” that we are so pressed on preserving?

In a country that is acknowledged as the oldest continuously thriving civilisation and whose heritage dates back to at least a few thousand years, what can be heritage about Chandigarh city which is only 70 years old?

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret boating at Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake. (HT File Photo)

What do we count as heritage ? Is everything old and ancient, heritage ? Are all things new and modern, not?

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The defining criteria of what can be considered heritage, both tangible and intangible, is that it has to be fundamentally valuable, adding to the quality of life and also valuable enough to be passed onto future generations.

The greatest heritage of India, is its ethos, its values, that are passed on from generation to generation. What counts as our heritage; natural resources, buildings, technologies, our inherited knowledge, literature, art and culture, cuisine, religion, spirituality, our family oriented living etc. – is truly voluminous. In short, our way of life is our heritage. It continues to be of universal relevance, value and utility for current and future generations; in making sense of life, resolving many issues of it and living a wholesome, contended and sustainable life.

But we also have traditions that we have been inheriting for many generations, which are a drag on our civilisational progress and rather not count them as heritage, like the caste system – a huge albatross around India’s neck, and other forms of feudalism, superstitions etc. So not everything that is ancient is heritage, valuable and worth keeping. Conversely,not everything that is new and modern, is not heritage.

From this perspective, even though Chandigarh is new, as a fully planned city that is very livable, it is of immense heritage value, that needs to be preserved undiminished, for the future generation.

Although a city’s physical environment is not the ultimate determinant of an individual’s quality of life, it is certainly a key factor that influences it. Therefore, a city needs to provide the best possible physical environment and Chandigarh ticks many boxes. It’s because it was carefully and meticulously planned and built by its founders. Amazingly many basic facilities that were built in the late 50s, 60s and 70s have endured and continue to be of excellent service to its citizens to this day.

“The Edict of Chandigarh” document, prescribed by Le Corbusier, the pioneering French architect who designed the city, is a must read. It fervently describes the basic characteristics of the city, to enlighten the present and future generations.

One recognizes the features and value of Chandigarh, more distinctly, when we travel out and stay in other cities in India.

How we feel a sense of ease, calm and peace that comes from the orderliness of this well planned city – grid shaped sectors serving as self-sufficient neighbourhoods and planned location of its residences, shops, institutions, parks etc, contrasting to the chaos you feel in other cities.

Other cities offer an onslaught to the visual senses with advertisement billboards, hoardings and posters, in Chandigarh, all one sees are pleasant green tree tops.

Living on the foothills of Himalayas in a city with 50% area under green spaces also stands in stark contrast to the urban concrete jungles that gasp for open spaces.

Look at how easily one can travel from point A to B in Chandigarh, through multiple routes courtesy the grid structure and hierarchy of well planned roads.

How we take for granted the city’s basic amenities like clean drinking water that comes from the snow-fed Satluj originating from Tibet, proper solid and sewerage waste facilities, good power supply system, street lighting etc. It’s all until we experience the lack thereof when travelling.

Most importantly, there is always a marked difference in safety and security that one feels in Chandigarh, compared to how dreadfully unsafe they do outside.

This is the valuable heritage of Chandigarh that needs to be preserved as the entitlement of the future generation! This is why Le Corbusier’s “Edict of Chandigarh” wants the residents to be acutely aware of its values and protect it against the whims of individuals.

A key factor that has helped in preserving this heritage, is the strict enforcement of heritage laws and other regulatory laws in Chandigarh, administered as an union territory. In this context, it is all the more important for government officials who are administering Chandigarh, to be thoroughly aware of its heritage value, for their action or inaction impacts Chandigarh, more than anybody else’s. There have been many damages to this heritage of Chandigarh, due to reckless administrative decisions, borne out of sheer ignorance, apathy or self-glorifying vanity!

Is everything so fabulous and wonderful in Chandigarh? Definitely not. It faces serious issues of inadequate low-income housing for workers, high density of vehicles and traffic issues, waste management issues, largely idle industrial estates, expensive land cost, urban slums etc, only some of which is attributable to faulty planning and many due to mis-management. Therefore, Chandigarh cannot be a never-changing city, unyielding to the dynamic requirements and aspirations of its population. It needs to evolve with time, but without losing its basic characteristics, enunciated in the “Edict of Chandigarh”, which is a part of Chandigarh Master Plan 2030, and which has been notified as a law.

Herein lies the challenge. Every major decision like introducing metros, flyovers, advertisement boards, relaxing the building norms etc, have to be tested against the touchstone of “The Edict”. Even the Supreme Court in its recent Judgement on January 10, 2023, recognised the importance of protecting Chandigarh’s heritage and has accordingly entrusted the Chandigarh Heritage Conservation Committee with certain special responsibilities.

There is no other city like Chandigarh in India, even anywhere in the world! What we have here is precious and should not be lost due to ignorance or apathy. So let us renew our commitment to preserve its heritage for our own well being and also for posterity!

(The writer is a Punjab cadre IAS officer in Chandigarh.)

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