Penang has blazed a trail in creating civic consciousness about heritage conservation

India’s ancient built heritage is protected, even if to a limited extent, by the Archaeological Survey of India, State Departments of Archaeology and, in the case of natural and cultural heritage, by government departments and “akademis.” But who is responsible for living heritage and much that is left unprotected, for one reason or another, by these institutions? Heritage protection is a State subject. In 1997, the Government of India circulated a model Heritage Act that States could adapt and implement. The then Statewide chapter in Tamil Nadu of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) began working with the government from late 1997 to get an Act based on this model passed. Without going into all that is past, what needs to be recorded is that three actions in this connection have been taken only from 2006 — and that too because of High Court interventions.

Chennai’s crumbling heritage

In 2006, the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee listed 467 buildings that should not be hidden from public view by hoardings because of their importance. Then, in 2010, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority constituted, on the orders of the Court, a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that later accepted the buildings listed by the Padmanabhan Committee as buildings that needed to be conserved and promised to add more buildings within the Metropolitan limits to the lists. Finally, as a consequence of this, in 2012, a Heritage Act was promised. But what was drawn up has still to be legislated.

Meanwhile, much of the city’s heritage continues to vanish or crumble. Listed buildings that have been partially destroyed by owners and/or neglected — like the Bharat Insurance Building, Gokhale Hall, Kalas Mahal, etc. — have had no action taken on them despite courts ordering their conservation or the government making commitments. Much of this is because the HCC, a virtually total government committee, has no teeth to implement anything. We will have to wait and see whether the Act, when it comes into being, will have the powers; those interested in heritage have not been consulted in drawing up the Act. Also awaiting implementation are plans for the city’s waterways and other natural heritage, as well as for investigation and documentation of much cultural heritage that has all but vanished.

In trying to achieve some of these goals, we might take a leaf out of what has been happening in Penang ever since its capital, George Town, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2008. To achieve the heritage goals of a World Heritage city is the partnership that has been forged between the quasi-government implementer of the programme, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the non-governmental organisations (NGO) led by the Penang Heritage Trust (the local equivalent of Intach, Chennai), and government towards ensuring the following:

a physical conservation programme that includes both community and private properties

a cultural mapping programme that helps document community histories and culture and preserve intangible heritage like endangered trades, traditional performing arts, and ancient culinary practices

a shared spaces programme that looks at footpaths, greening and improving public spaces such as parks, waterways and urban markets, and

a capacity-building programme that focuses on training workshops on old building materials, techniques, etc.

Road map to restoration

Equally significant is the fact that to make this possible, government funding has been made available even to individuals for restoration projects after due evaluation by the funding agency and GTWHI. The funding agency, Think City Berhad, was established in 2009 as a part of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, which is rather like our Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation Limited (TIIC) but with a wider mandate. This role in Tamil Nadu could be played by Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Ltd (TNUIFSL).

Think City’s George Town Grants Programme (GTGP) had, till the end of 2011, restored or was restoring 97 houses and had nearly 1,500 people attend capacity-building programmes it had funded. It had disbursed nearly RM 13 million — 60 per cent on conservation of buildings and 13 per cent on improving public spaces. Grants were given to privately-owned shophouses and homes, many of which have been converted into budget hotels, restaurants, and exhibition centres, as well as to community buildings, like temples, mosques, churches and the headquarters of associations. Several guides, manuals, histories, and niche heritage books have also been published. And several parks and other public spaces improved.

Rental values of restored buildings in the Core Zone and the Buffer Zone are now up by 50 to 100 per cent and there are more takers willing to cater to the increasing number of visitors who see Penang as a holiday destination where much of a preserved past is not far from its beaches. The heritage listing ensures that a building in it cannot be pulled down and that the owner must find ways of restoring it for reuse with or without the State-backed support groups.

In Singapore

Action on heritage conservation began in Singapore even earlier than in Penang and the National Heritage Board, with representation from government departments, NGOs led by the Singapore Heritage Society, and the private sector, spearheads heritage protection. With heritage activities well under way in the city-State for some years now, it is now looking at Heritage Vision 2025.

The vision proposes focus on five areas with the help of government funding, national collection drives, and loans. These areas are:

national stewardship through research, capacity-building and the drawing up of strategies and policies

heritage museums, institutions and galleries

heritage sites which will include national monuments , Unesco World Heritage Sites, listed buildings and markers, heritage private homes and tombs;

heritage precincts like Chinatown, Little India, and various heritage kampongs (villages), and

heritage practices that will include intangible heritage such as traditional practices, arts and crafts.

Start from school

But while what I have mentioned must be a part of the Tamil Nadu Heritage Act and what follows from it both by way of planning as well as implementation, there is much more that has to be done in Tamil Nadu. That is, to create a heritage consciousness. And that must begin in school. Here’s my wish list:

history, geography, civics and environmental studies, focused on the State and India, taught as separate subjects as they once were, must be brought back into the syllabi

every school must have age-group heritage clubs which will look at the built, natural and cultural of heritage of the district it is in through lectures, field trips and exhibitions.

humanities must be a compulsory subject in undergraduate education

the conservation of heritage buildings must be a compulsory subject in architecture and civil engineering syllabi.

research into and documentation of lost or vanishing heritage (particularly into building materials, techniques etc.) and of the State’s historical past must be encouraged in higher educational institutions through liberal funding.

The Heritage Act must ensure that apart from an overarching heritage committee (with substantial non-governmental representation from various fields), there must be a heritage committee in every district (again with substantial non-governmental representation) that must mandatorily meet every month and publicise its proceedings.

What is needed today is the creation of heritage and civic consciousness in the State even as it legislates a Heritage Act and, hopefully, implements it as soon as possible.

(S. Muthiah is a heritage activist in Chennai from 1977. He recently visited Penang and Singapore.)