CID office to Covid war room: A building that encases heritage
Bengaluru: When coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic hit Karnataka last year, a heritage building in Bengaluru was turned into a war room to coordinate the state’s efforts to control the pandemic. The Balabrooie Guest House built in 1850s was, however, in news in 2014 when the government wanted to raise down the building to build a recreational club for Karnataka legislators. Residents in large numbers took to streets to protest the plan, forcing the government to give in.
As TP Issar, former chief secretary of Karnataka, in his book ‘City Beautiful’, wrote that Lord Cubbon, who was the commissioner of the Mysore state, wanted Balabrooie Guest House to remind him of his hometown on the little island in the Irish Sea, where many homes were called ‘Balabrooie’ (farm on the riverbank). “Sir Mark Cubbon hailed from the Isle of Man and was buried in Maughold Church there on 17 May 1861. Not surprisingly, there are a few “Mysore Cottages” in the Isle, four of them at Ramsay,” Issar wrote in his book.
The fact that this heritage building still remains a hub administrative activity, points at a unique factor of Bengaluru’s heritage compared to other cities. According to Meera Iyer, convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), Bengaluru city has an everyday heritage.
“If you look at Paris, it has the Eiffel Tower, while New Delhi has the India Gate and the Red Fort. But in Bengaluru, we have neighbourhoods and the elements of this neighbourhood that holds heritage value and still remains an important part of the city’s functioning,” she said.
Several government buildings such as the Carlton House, which houses the office of the Criminal Investigation Department, the office of the chief postmaster general, the Bengaluru police commissioner’s offices are heritage buildings that continue to remain operational.
According to Suresh Moona, Bangalore’s ‘Heritage Man’ and founder of AARAMBH (An Association for Reviving Awareness about the Monuments of Bangalore Heritage), because of this office exist and because of security reasons, these heritage buildings remain out of bounds for the common people.
“Talking of everyday heritage, one of the biggest historical assets, the city has are the old houses, especially in the south Bengaluru. They were known not just for their architectural beauty but also because of their history. To give an example, one of the most beautiful heritage houses in south Bengaluru belonged to BP Radhakrishna. It was in this house, he was given the Padma Shree. The house, unfortunately, is no longer there,” said Moona.
He said one of the reasons for many heritage houses in Bengaluru making way for apartment buildings, is the lack of care from the government. “I have interacted with owners of several of these houses. When I request them not to sell these houses and preserve them, the question they ask is that what benefit they get from the government. The government is not reducing property tax because it is a heritage building and for such properties, the tax is high as well. Since there is a demand for land in Bengaluru, builders are offering them large sums as well,” Moona added.
However, there have been some efforts from the government’s side to promote heritage. On April 21, the Karnataka government notified the Zonal Regulations (Amendment), 2020 (ZRA). The new regulations are aimed at conserving heritage sites, buildings, precincts and natural features. They will apply to Zonal Regulations/Master Plans of all local planning areas in the state, including Bengaluru.
ZRA specifies rules for identifying and preserving the state’s heritage, by large, have been welcomed by conservationists. With ZRA, Bengaluru would have a dedicated authority to identify and protect a wide range of heritage sites, including natural features. However, this authority is yet to come into effect.
The Karnataka government this week decided to develop 46 Kempegowda heritage sites located in Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural, Ramanagara, Chikballapura, and Tumakuru districts, in a bid to promote tourism. Chief minister B S Yediyurappa said the sites identified in three circuits would be developed at a cost of ₹223 crore for promoting tourism.
However, activists believe this is not enough. According to Moona, Bangalore Urban Art Commission (BUAC) was established in 1976 and it commissioned a survey of the city’s iconic heritage buildings in the mid-1980s. The survey listed over 800 such buildings that were thought to be worthy of protection.
“In 2001, the BUAC was suddenly dissolved. There is still not clear why it was done, but we believe the opposition to the rapid urbanisation from the commission led to it. The commission had opposed the construction of Vikas Soudha (a building with an identical design as the historical Vidhan Soudha). Then there were restrictions on construction on major roads like MG Road and others. This could be the reason. Since then, there is no talk to restoring the commission and massive developments continue across the city, unchallenged,” Moona said.
He added that if the beauty and history of the existing heritage buildings have to be preserved, there is a need for another Bengaluru arts commission. “What is important is to make it independent and to appoint experts on heritage in this committee. Ensuring there is government involvement in the committee is very important. But in our current economic race, I don’t know if that could be a reality,” he said.
Iyer, however, added that recent interest among people in heritage is a good sign. “These heritage buildings are repositories of heritage... The number of heritage walks that are taking place in Bengaluru and social media posts on the same are good signs. But the bad news is that despite the new regulations that have come, we see that the government is still not keen on heritage inclusive development. Heritage is still looked as an obstruction towards modernity and building a new city,” she added.