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Hidden in plain sight

April 18 was World Heritage Day, but in Mumbai, an updated list of heritage sites featuring 700 suburban monuments has been awaiting BMC recognition for four years.

mumbai Updated: Apr 22, 2012 00:59 IST

In the heart of Dharavi, on a narrow lane called 95th Road, slum children clamber up a high stone wall that seems inconspicuous, until you chance upon the engraved stone plaque in the centre. ‘Built by order of the honourable President and Governor of Bombay in 1737,’ it says.

The wall is a rampart of the triangular Rewa Fort. Locally known as Kala Killa or Black Fort, it is classified as a Grade I monument on a new list of heritage structures proposed by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC). Built as a small watchtower with bastions protruding from two corners, Kala Killa was flanked, until the 1960s, by open ground on one side and the Mithi river on the other.

Today, the fort faces the onslaught of slum encroachments, its walls half-hidden by brick shanties. Large trees grow out of the cracks in its stone walls. In an underground cellar within, children play on a pile of debris.

Across Greater Mumbai, more than 1,000 other such structures — similarly forgotten, hiding in plain sight — are waiting for the municipal corporation to sanction an updated heritage list.

On Wednesday, April 18, yet another World Heritage Day went by without any progress on that front.

It has been four years since three private conservation firms prepared the list for the MHCC and submitted it to the BMC and the state government’s urban development department.

Last month, in the final installment of the BMC’s response to an RTI request filed by Shirin Bharucha, managing trustee of the Urban Design Research Institute, the civic body revealed that former municipal commissioner Jairaj Phatak had approved the list in September 2009, and had been directed by the UDD to publish the list for objections and suggestions from the public.

“Since then, the file has been lying with the civic body. Unless it is published, the final list cannot be sanctioned,” says UDRI executive director Pankaj Joshi.

Meanwhile, the list currently in effect contains just 633 structures from the island city — and has not been updated since it was first framed in 1995.

Missing from this list are scores of old homes, churches, institutions and even the Jogeshwari, Mahakali and Mandapeshwar caves — all of which feature on the proposed list.

Some of these structures, like the caves, are recognised as protected sites by the Archaeological Survey of India. But they get little protection from that status, since the ASI is a central body with little presence on the ground.

“The civic body and UDD have been tossing the new list between them for four years, and the procedural delay could lead to the damage and destruction of hundreds of historically significant structures in the city,” says Joshi.

The state government has also not appointed a new heritage conservation committee since the term of the previous committee expired six months ago. The MHCC’s role is to protect heritage monuments and advise the municipal commissioner on whether to grant or deny building permissions on such sites.

Municipal commissioner Subodh Kumar, meanwhile, says he does not know the details of the issue. “I will check on it,” he said.

First Published: Apr 22, 2012 00:58 IST