Rethinking Conservation of India's Unprotected Urban Heritage—Learnings from Practice
Architecture + Design|December 2020
The diverse unprotected urban heritage in the historic cities and towns of India are decaying fast. Heritage buildings now stand abandoned, neglected and abused.
Ar. Urvashi Srivastava

Innumerable risk factors, both at the macro level of the historic urban settlements as well as at the micro level, have been responsible for the deterioration of heritage buildings and posing a serious threat to the existence of these invaluable urban heritage. In the midst of these challenging circumstances, the big question that arises is what can be done to save the priceless unprotected urban heritage from being lost forever?

This article highlights the plethora of problems affecting urban heritage, with a detailed study of the built heritage of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan, which draws attention towards the reasons why with each passing day it is becoming more and more difficult to conserve unprotected urban heritage and safeguard it from being lost. It discusses the role of local communities, especially owners and craftsmen, in conserving the heritage buildings and structures. It also explores the relevance of a preventive strategy in mitigating negative factors and minimising deterioration of the unprotected urban heritage, while sharing practical experiences and learnings from 21 years of practice in the field of built heritage conservation.

Urban Heritage: Unprotected and Vulnerable

Some critical questions need to be answered when we talk about safeguarding the unprotected urban heritage in India, especially the historic cores that have developed over several centuries, some of which even go back to thousands of years. With the world moving towards an increasingly urbanised and technology-driven society, the big question that arises is why do we need to protect historic cities and towns? Old urban cores and neighbourhoods in cities are perceived as obstacles and impediments to the demands of modern-day living. With challenges of providing modern infrastructure, hygiene and accommodating the ever-growing vehicular traffic through narrow winding streets, old buildings and structures are considered as a burden especially with their deteriorating physical fabric and functional obsolescence. The other important question is do we have a collective vision and appropriate strategy backed by an actionable plan to be able to safeguard our historic cities? And lastly, do we really have the resources—both financial and skilled manpower, to safeguard and conserve the widespread urban heritage in our cities and towns? These are some of the most pertinent questions that need to be addressed upfront, before we can embark on the protection of urban heritage in cities and towns.

In an attempt to find answers to the above questions, we need to begin by travelling back in time for a brief overview of the civilisational history, which reveals how human settlements have grown over the millennia in the Indian subcontinent. Humans settled in India in multiple waves of early migrations. The Indian subcontinent witnessed the growth of urban settlements around 4,500 years ago during the Indus Valley Civilisation and the more recently excavated archaeological sites in the Indo Gangetic plains, which now jointly constitute the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation or the Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilisation. From the meticulously planned cities of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation to the cities of the Medieval Period to the more recent ones, Indian cities and towns have a legacy of planning and design that bestows upon them a unique identity, character and way of living. They are an outcome of the combined efforts of generations, and therefore, repositories of knowledge and wisdom accumulated over several millennia. They are what defines the earliest contours of Indian Urbanism.

A closer look at historic cities reveals a deep comprehension of human behaviour—needs for shelter, security and socialising, as well as a profound understanding of the immediate environment and ecological processes. Right from the planning and design of the settlements to the minutest detailing of the buildings and their ornamentation, arts, crafts or even articles of everyday utility, everything in the historic core of the city is an evidence of perfection achieved collectively over generations. All this and more draw people to old city cores despite the traffic snarls, congestion and unhygienic conditions. The human scale, opportunities for social interaction, the highly specialised markets, local crafts and flavours of food, and a unique experience attract both domestic and international visitors to historic city cores. The human scale of the built environment, the unique way of life, sociability, traditional livelihoods, skills and tourism thus become the raison d’être for safeguarding and conserving the urban heritage invested in historic cities and towns, apart from the very important aspects of creativity, sustainability and resilience that are characteristic of such historic settlements. Based on this critical understanding, a holistic vision and framework for safeguarding historic urban settlements and directions for their future heritage-based development need to be crystallised. Concrete goals followed by an appropriate strategy and an actionable plan with well-defined milestones need to be outlined as well as appropriate legislations need to be put in place before embarking on the conservation of unprotected urban heritage.

The current government systems for conservation of heritage in India are primarily focussed on monuments and sites. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protects around 3,693 monuments and sites of national importance, and the different states jointly protect another 4,000 or so monuments and sites—which is minuscule as compared to the large number of heritage buildings and structures to be found in historic cities and towns across the country. Even the financial and technical resources required for the conservation of ASI and state-protected monuments and sites are grossly insufficient. In this light, due to the lack of a grassroots-level protection and management strategy, unprotected urban heritage in historic cores is disappearing rapidly. Modern infrastructure interventions, upgradation of services and utilities and an ever-increasing real estate pressure has put the unprotected urban heritage at great risk. The rate at which urban transformation is taking place in our cities and towns has been detrimental to urban heritage. With population growth, high densities, pollution, unhygienic living conditions and poverty characterising the historic city cores, the threat of epidemics and disasters looms large over such areas. The current COVID-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the plight of the residents in the historic city cores in the absence of holistic management.

In such a grim scenario, what is the way forward and how do we augment our strained financial resources and improve human resources for safeguarding the unprotected urban heritage? While several urban improvement projects with a component of urban heritage conservation have been undertaken in the last few decades by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA)— beginning with the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) launched in 2005, the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) Scheme, the 100 Smart Cities Mission, the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) all introduced in 2015—the focus consistently has been on infrastructure interventions and beautification in the public domain, whereas interventions on private unprotected heritage have been limited to façade improvements. These efforts have been more like one-time projects, with questions of sustainability of such interventions being completely overlooked. The issue of ‘Authenticity’, the most important criteria that forms the backbone of conservation as per the international charters, has been time and again compromised in such beautification interventions. Also, all these schemes have largely covered the important and well-known historic cities only. The lesser known towns are yet to receive government attention and funding. A few public-private initiatives have also taken offin in the last decades. However, they have been very limited in both the scope and scale of their interventions as well as in building local capacities. These initiatives are heavily dependent on external funding and the questions of sustainability of such interventions remain unanswered once the funding is over.

The Case of Urban Heritage in Shekhawati

Considering the rapid pace of transformation and the steady loss of unprotected urban heritage, new ways of thinking need to be invoked, new frameworks need to be evolved and new systems need to be put in place to actively and meaningfully involve the various stakeholders in a programmatic manner. My engagement of two decades with one such historic area in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan that boasts of several historic towns and villages, provides significant learnings regarding the conservation and safeguarding of unprotected yet extremely important urban heritage in lesser known towns in the country.

My rendezvous with the Shekhawati region began in 2001 with a casual visit to the area that ultimately became the focus of both my professional practice and research as a Conservation Architect. Referred to as an ‘open air art gallery’, Shekhawati has the largest collection of painted buildings anywhere in the world. Its heritage is spread not over just a few towns and villages, but encompasses an entire region covering three districts with an approximate area of 30,000 sq km. Several towns in the region are strewn with beautifully painted buildings. However, the diverse built heritage of Shekhawati is crumbling fast. Heritage buildings now stand abandoned, neglected and abused. Beautifully painted havelis are languishing in its various towns. New structures are being constructed within and around old havelis. Insensitive infrastructure interventions and renovation works are threatening to destroy the distinct identity and uniqueness of Shekhawati towns. Some of the havelis have even been deliberately demolished to make way for new construction. With the present global COVID-19 situation, the already constrained tourism activity in the Shekhawati region has taken a big hit. Amid these extremely challenging circumstances, the question that arises is what can be done to save these historic towns and villages with their priceless buildings and remarkable crafts and skills from being lost forever?

Illusion of Interventions and Investments

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