Early start and sustained efforts have been critical for the conservation of monuments. Unfortunately, these have been lacking in regard to the historic cities in India such as Ujjain and Kancheepuram, which are now shadows of their past and are fast turning into less desirable places to live in. UNESCO's move to create Indian Heritage Cities Network (IHCN), a programme to recover the heritage value of cities is a commendable initiative. Recently, in an attempt to convince representatives and officials from the various Indian cities, it took them to some French towns where valuable assets have been created by integrating heritage conservation with urban development. So far, city development and investment plans have bypassed them. For instance, the Master Plan for Varanasi (1991-2011), one of the ancient cities with a unique urban design and impressive river-front architecture, has designated only two per cent of the land under use as heritage area. The emphasis is always on the new areas. As a result, the peripheries develop rapidly, leaving the old urban core to struggle for even basic services. A case in point is the walled city of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, now a notified slum with crumbling house stocks.
The IHCN decision to work actively with the local bodies to reinvent old cities as worthy places of living is an effective strategy. However, this partnership should go beyond producing conventional development plans that mainly address aesthetic concerns. The priority should be to improve the housing stock and the urban services without affecting the stakes of the less-privileged inhabitants. In Lima, Peru, the poor occupants of its historic core area were given property titles under a special law so as to ensure their participation in its improvement and encourage them to spend on maintenance. Another challenge would be to fund residents to retrofit their old houses. In Graz (Austria), since the local bodies, with their meagre resources, would find it difficult to support such a programme, a dedicated fund was created and annually replenished through government grants. The restoration costs are fully met from this fund. Over the last 35 years about $6.5 million has been disbursed. Targeted credit with affordable interest rates and allowing for limited commercial use in housing area could be other ways of mobilising funds. Redeveloping old cities without impairing their historic significance may appear challenging but, as experience elsewhere shows, it is eminently feasible.