Desperate heritage rescue
Shock, anger and a collective sigh of extreme despair greeted the dramatic demolition of the 157-year-old Krumbiegel Hall in Lalbagh last week. It has been a rude wake-up call for all those who value Bengaluru's surviving structures and traditions, tagged with pride as our 'heritage.' Is the delayed inclusion of heritage conservation in the Revised Master Plan (RMP 2031) compensation enough?
In disrepair for several years, Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel's lecture hall had symbolized all that the legendary botanist did to boost the city's green cover.
The official machinery was in a hurry to perfect its demolition job, unmindful of the public outcry. It was yet another exhibition of the brute power of the State, bypassing a consultation process that could have helped renovate the structure.
A glimmer of hope
Now that the deed is done and dusted, a desperate attempt is on to stop the bulldozers. Fortunately for the heritage buffs, the RMP 2031 offers a glimmer a hope.
For the first time, the plan has acknowledged preservation of heritage, devoting adequate documentary space. Creation of 12 heritage zones, a heritage master plan and a city-level heritage committee are key parts of the strategy proposed.
But heritage is much more than buildings. Fairs, festivals, traditional markets are all part of the city's cultural heritage. Yet, as civic evangelist V Ravichander reminds, "Traditionally, we have been very insensitive to our building heritage.
Beyond lip sympathy, the city has done precious little to preserve it."
The English Heritage, where private people take the initiative with government support, could be a model to emulate, suggests Ravichander. "Look at the way they have preserved the houses of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, complemented by guided tours, arresting narratives, story-telling and audio files. Of course, everything is charged. The model has to be sustainable," he explains.
To inject life into heritage buildings, they have to be repurposed while weaving compelling stories around them. But first they need to be restored and refurbished. "Our leaders and the bureaucracy need to have sensitivity, a feeling for history. Two to three decades back, we did have a few committed people in the Bangalore Urban Arts Commission."
By setting off an online petition hash-tagged #HeritageBeku and #PastForward, civic activists Priya Chetty-Rajagopal had articulated the need to democratize the heritage conservation efforts. Over the last eight months, the petition seeking stringent laws to
activate preservation, has gained traction.
On legislation, the petition reminds that "A fledgling law has already been drafted and is yet to see light of day. The Bengaluru Heritage Preservation and Regulation Bill is still buried with the urban development department although the bill was conceptualized circa 2004, and drafted in 2010."
A key suggestion was to seamlessly integrate city tourism and heritage. "Tourism is the single biggest kicker to practically sustain heritage. Show demonstrations or case studies of how much revenue can be generated this way," the petition had asked the Chief Minister and Bengaluru Development Minister.
Not clearly defined
The RMP 2031 has included a few of these suggestions. "The RMP is at least respectful of the existence of heritage. The idea is to make heritage liveable. But there are issues. Heritage is still not clearly defined. The list of heritage sites needs to be validated. Questions like what is the legal framework for a heritage site remain," notes Priya.
In 2015, urban architect Naresh Narasimhan had presented a proposal to include 65 historical buildings in a special zone of over 2,500 acres in the city centre. The idea was to create a 'Suvarna Valaya' that doubles up as a highly engaging, interactive tourist zone. The zone, still under consideration by the Ministry of Tourism, is yet to take shape.
Overall, the RMP might have elicited a positive response from conservationists. But there is a spot of bother: How can private heritage property owners be compensated for the restrictions that the government proposes to impose?
One option could be to introduce Heritage TDR (Transfer of Development Rights), as Meera Iyer, INTACH-Bengaluru chapter co-convenor suggests. "It has been adopted in Ahmedabad, where the walled city houses about 2,600 listed heritage structures. The private heritage property owners are given a particular amount as TDR. When they restore their property, they can sell the TDR to a builder to construct (additional floors, etc) elsewhere," she explains.
Since it is a transaction between two private parties, the government will not be burdened with any compensation. For Bengaluru, the scheme could be modified, says Iyer, suggesting more alternatives: Property tax waivers or low interest loans for restoration of the heritage structures.