Give Mumbai’s heritage its glory

While Mumbaikars share an intimate relationship with the city’s heritage, myopic policies have brought it to the brink. We find out why it is important for Mumbaikars to turn custodians of the rich heritage.

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - January 31, 2016 08:38 am IST - Mumbai

General Post Office in Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre

General Post Office in Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre

It is most likely that you as a Mumbaikar would have been born in a heritage hospital building (Bhabha, JJ, Grant Medical, Wadia hospital), gone to school or college in a heritage building (JB Petit, Avabai Petit, Cathedral, Bombay Scottish), graduated from a historic college or university (JJ School of Arts, SNDT Kanyashala, Elphinstone, St Xavier’s, University Fort Campus), played cricket in a historic ground (Oval, Shivaji Park), worked in a heritage building (HSBC and Deutsche Bank, BMC head office, Mantralaya or even Old Customs House), or even fought a court case in one. Even if you do not fall into

any of these categories, at least you would have taken a train past the heritage Grade I Bandra station to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in your daily commute.

The relationship Mumbaikars share with their heritage is distinct from that of other Indian cities. Unlike Delhi, for example, where most historic buildings are Archaeological Survey of India-protected sites and fenced off from visitors, every Mumbaikar has an intimate relationship with the city’s heritage. Perhaps that is the reason heritage conservation affects us more deeply than in any other Indian city. Moreover, with the exception of the Sewri Fort, the island city has no nationally protected site (due to the rather myopic view that the city’s largely colonial heritage was not old enough). So it really is up to Mumbaikars to be custodians, patrons and protectors of our heritage structures.

In 1995, Mumbai established itself as the first Indian city to adopt heritage regulations for the protection of its urban heritage. As per the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay 1995, 633 entries listed architectural heritage ranging from monumental public buildings to neighbourhood landmarks and entire urban precincts, protecting them from demolition and regulating the developmental interventions to their built fabric.

The Heritage Regulation was successful in not only protecting vulnerable historic building stock, but also in acknowledging 19th and 20th century heritage (such as the Art Deco Marine Drive).

Given Mumbai’s position as the country’s financial centre, the regulation enabled the preservation of a considerable amount of building stock that would have been lost to the pressures of urbanisation. Moreover, it recognised the need to preserve and yet reconfigure a city, along with the reality of its living, functioning public structures such as railway stations, courts and libraries unlike many other cities that confined heritage to a monument-centric approach.

Much remains to be done to make the conservation movement a success in the city when we take stock of the situation 20 years into this pioneering regulation. While heritage listing protects ‘listed’ buildings from demolition, it cannot prevent a building from ruination through sheer neglect, if not wilful destruction. There is also a need to have enabling policies that will support private owners of heritage and demystify heritage for the common man.

Reclaiming historic spaces

The historic Banganga tank has slum dwellers squatting on its steps and even building around a deepa stambh. The medieval Mahim Fort is virtually inaccessible to the public. It commands a vantage view over the western waters of the bay. The fort was a strong defensive outpost for the Portuguese rulers as it protected the island of Bombay from the northern creek or any invading army that may have gained control of Salsette. The site also houses the city’s first Franciscan church. It was this critical location that made the Portuguese reluctant to part with the fort even in 1662, when the islands of Bombay were acquired by the British as part of Catherine de Braganza’s dowry to Charles II.

No other city in the world has three sea-facing historic forts — Bandra, Mahim and Worli — lined up like a string of pearls along its seafront. While Bandra Fort is thankfully well kept with a vigilant citizenry taking interest in its upkeep, Mahim Fort is run over by slums. The plight is unimaginable given the fact that it is listed as a Grade I heritage building and a state archaeology-protected site. If these forts could be freed of encroachments, restored and illuminated, they could offer the citizens of Mumbai and tourists an unparalleled experience and a vital open space. It is time we implemented the idea of incorporating open spaces into the city’s fabric, re-integrate historic sites and expansive open spaces such as Mahim beach, and give them back to the city as vital green spaces.

Signage regulation

Better vigilance and implementation of existing policies will ensure the lessening of much of the urban chaos we witness today. The city is no stranger to handsome neo-classical facades obliterated by the clutter of shop signs and unchecked encroachment. A mere implementation of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s licence policy under the 1888 Act for areas such as Princess Street, Colaba Causeway and MG Road is a simple task for the licensing authority, and will help achieve an urban facelift without costing the government a penny.

Incentives for private buildings

A critical next step should be that of incentivising heritage preservation and creating economic policies to support conservation. Innovative tax incentives for restoring heritage buildings, funds for heritage preservation and financial mechanisms such as soft loans are the need of the hour for the bulk of the city’s buildings constructed before 1947.

The idea is to understand that historic stock is an asset, not a liability and merely requires innovative financial mechanisms to make it economically sustainable.

Tax breaks for restoring private buildings, easier permissions for adaptive reuse, soft loans and financial tools will ensure a greater public involvement in restoration.

Policy review for dying theatres

Mumbai is the city of cinema. However, some of its most iconic cinema halls and theatres have gradually faced losses and an inflexible excise and taxation policy, making them teeter towards dereliction and closure. These include the historic Capitol Cinema, Liberty, Opera House, Edward Theatre, New Roshan Talkies, Nishat Cinema, Alfred Cinema among others. It is time the government reviewed the tax structure of historic theatres and made concerted efforts to save these iconic cultural venues.

Reviving historic areas

Innovative urban-level schemes and pilot projects are also needed to revitalise the city’s urban assets. Re-invigorating areas such as Ballard Estate after office hours should be taken up. Night dining and bazaars in heritage precincts, illumination of Victorian streetscapes and well-designed hawker plazas require enormous brainstorming and public debate but could offer economically sustainable urban solutions.

In Mumbai, where each square inch of open space is a luxury, we have failed to exploit the potential of areas such as the Parel mill lands. The hundreds of acres of the Eastern waterfront could be Mumbai’s solution for a planned urban renewal.

Instead of short-term gains from parcelling off pockets of land and fragmenting this prime area, the implementation of a holistic vision for the port lands with provision of an ‘urban green’ for the city, could do for Mumbai what Boston’s Charlestown or San Francisco’s Presidio National Park achieved for these cities.

Global tourist destination

While cities like London package themselves aggressively as business and heritage destinations to woo tourism dollars, Mumbai is rather laid back in tapping this immense economic potential.

Even with two world heritage sites of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Elephanta, it is still largely perceived as a financial and business destination unlike other cities that use a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing as a major advertising and earning opportunity through heritage tourism.

With January 31 as the deadline for the government to declare its site for UNESCO World Heritage Status, one hopes the nomination dossier for Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco Heritage will be forwarded by the Ministry of Culture and give the city a chance to showcase its living heritage to the world community.

Points to ponder

Incorporate open spaces into the city’s fabric

Implement the BMC’s licence policy in areas such as Princess Street, Colaba Causeway and MG Road to clear neo-classical facades of shop signs and unchecked encroachment

Provide innovative tax incentives for restoring heritage buildings, funds for heritage preservation and soft loans for buildings constructed before 1947

Review tax structure of historic theatres

Re-invigorate areas such as Ballard Estate after office hours; bring in night dining and bazaars in heritage precincts

illuminate Victorian streetscapes; create hawker plazas

About the author

Abha Narain Lambah is a conservation architect, and her practice spans archaeological sites such as Ajanta Caves, Bodh Gaya and Hampi; medieval monuments and palaces in Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh; colonial public buildings in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi; and a range of museums.

She has engaged with conservation policy and practice and has served on the Heritage Conservation Committees of Delhi and Mumbai. She has also edited and authored books on architecture and conservation

For the complete list of stories in the Fixing Mumbai series, > click here
0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.