Saving Bengaluru’s everyday heritage
The trajectory of heritage in the last 50 years makes it clear that population is not heritage’s greatest enemy; unplanned and unregulated growth is
Bengaluru is a city of everyday heritage. Instead of an iconic monument or two, we have a mosaic of heritage-rich streets and neighbourhoods, interspersed with newer areas. While Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and New Delhi has the India Gate, the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar, our city has living heritage buildings: a bungalow in a garden on a tree-lined street, a shop or office functioning from a heritage house, and a school in a 100-year-old building.
To safeguard the city’s aesthetics and its built heritage, the Bangalore Urban Art Commission (BUAC) was established in 1976, under the provisions of the BDA Act of 1976. Regulations now stipulated that new constructions on major roads, such as M.G. Road, N.R. Road, Cubbon Road and so on, and those fronting public spaces, such as Cubbon Park, Lalbagh, Russell Market, Central College, Victoria Hospital and others, will require permissions as per BUAC’s guidelines.
Survey of buildings
In the mid-1980s, the BUAC commissioned a survey of the city’s iconic heritage buildings. The survey listed over 800 such buildings that were thought to be worthy of protection.
Five years later, T.P. Issar, chairperson of the BUAC, published a much-loved and now legendary book about these buildings, The City Beautiful. The term ‘City Beautiful’ originated in the late-1800s in Chicago, when increasing population and a rapid, unplanned expansion led to that city being described as “grotesque, gruesome, appalling”.
The ‘City Beautiful’ movement was born in response to this perceived ugliness and disorder, and it led to Chicago’s beautification and is associated with some of its more monumental architecture.
Ironically, in Bengaluru, the publication of the book, The City Beautiful, marked the period when there was a sharp deterioration in urban heritage.
In 1982, the government decided to demolish the High Court building. This led to sustained public protests, a PIL, its dismissal, an appeal in the Supreme Court, and finally, a reversal by the government of the proposal.
Though the High Court building was saved by people power, many other government and private buildings began succumbing to the promise of lucre. As the JCBs were kept busy, the bureaucracy made half-hearted attempts to protect the city’s built heritage.
In the early 1990s, a heritage cell was set up, chaired by the Chief Secretary, and with government officials and others as members.
The cell met several times and discussed the urgent need to bring in heritage regulations, the rights and wishes of private property owners and so on. Meanwhile in 1995, Mumbai adopted ‘Heritage Regulations’, with Nashik and Nagpur following suit a few years later. In Karnataka though, the preservation of non-monumental heritage was and is low on the political and bureaucratic agenda. So in the end, it all came to naught as real estate won.
In April 2001, the BUAC was suddenly dissolved and with that, the last semblance of protection from the demolition of heritage was lost. Buildings began to fall more rapidly, trees were cut, and parks were encroached upon. In 2015, INTACH’s re-look at BUAC’s survey revealed that in 30 years, more than half of the city’s iconic buildings had disappeared.
The trajectory of heritage in the last 50 years makes it clear that population is not heritage’s greatest enemy; unplanned and unregulated growth is. The city witnessed its highest population growth rate in the 1970s, not in the 1990s or 2000s.
If the regulations, put in place in 1976, had been strictly enforced, would our city’s older neighbourhoods have looked different today? What if the heritage cell of the 1990s had been more effective? One recalls the poet Whittier’s sad words: ‘It might have been.’
Last September, the High Court of Telangana ruled against the demolition of a 150-year-old building in Hyderabad. In his order, Chief Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan said, “The identity and character of a city is defined by its architecture and heritage. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to preserve, conserve and restore the heritage buildings of the cities”.
We need to keep reminding our administrators and politicians that our built heritage is important for our quality of living. It is imbued with memories and meanings. It helps people build connections with the city. It fosters a sense of belonging.
We must keep asking for workable regulations to protect this living and breathing heritage, for regulatory frameworks that include mechanisms to compensate private owners including, for example, heritage TDRs, a heritage fund, tax waivers, low-interest loans, and so on.
Change is in the air, though it will probably take some time for it to waft into our city.
(Meera Iyer is the author of the book ‘Discovering Bengaluru’ and the convener of INTACH Bengaluru Chapter.)