A holistic heritage conservation plan

Though admirable, efforts towards restoration of heritage sites are still piecemeal

December 27, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

The renovated stepwell at Bansilalpet.

The renovated stepwell at Bansilalpet. | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

Five years after the Telangana government brought in a new Heritage Act and scrapped protection for dozens of heritage sites, it appears to have changed tack. There is now a new buzz about heritage and culture. The Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development is not just inaugurating flyovers and other civic projects, but is talking about the conservation and preservation of heritage sites.

The government’s show of interest doesn’t stop with speeches; large sums of money are being spent on restoration of heritage sites. The 1935 Moazzam Jahi Market was restored at a reported cost of ₹16 crore and the Bansilalpet stepwell at ₹2.6 crore. The conservation/restoration of a century-old library and two municipal markets at a cost of about ₹55 crore is in the pipeline. These projects are being announced and overseen by the Municipal Administration and Urban Development department. Attention has been diverted from the turf battle with the Department of Archaeology and Museums.

Last year, Ramappa temple near Warangal was given the UNESCO World Heritage site tag after India mounted a diplomatic offensive to ensure the coveted status for the 13th century temple. Two other sites — the Golconda stepwells and Domakonda Fort — in the State were winners in UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific awards for cultural heritage conservation in 2022. All this recognition has whetted the appetite of the Telangana government. Telangana is in a hurry to get things moving and to cut the red tape as it wishes to achieve the UNESCO World Heritage City status for Hyderabad, like Ahmedabad and Jaipur. This will help it boost tourism.

The new effort, which involves bypassing regular official channels, local politicians, and special interest groups, seems to be working as pace has clearly picked up and results can be seen on the ground. For too long, Hyderabad has been hobbled by special interest groups which have stymied attempts to improve the core area of the Charminar historical precinct and the heritage around it.

However, the new announcements seem to indicate that the government is adopting a piecemeal approach to conservation. Heritage revitalisation is a complex issue wound around the cultural fabric of the city. The nationally protected Charminar is a 430-year-old marker of the Golconda rulers, who reigned between 1518 and 1687. The grand secular Indo-Sarcenic buildings that line the banks of the River Musi were constructed in the aftermath of flood destruction at the turn of the last century by another set of rulers. It is this continuum of evolution in built heritage and the layers of development that are hallmarks of the city’s heritage. These make it worthy of “identification, protection and preservation,” say UNESCO guidelines. Focusing on a few marquee sites away from the core heritage zone won’t do. As an earlier Government of India and World Bank-aided project noted, “urban renewal activities are compartmentalised both in terms of city development planning and investments”. This is a key challenge as revitalisation of built heritage or a site cannot happen in isolation and a holistic perspective is needed.

The World Bank and Government of India project mapped the steps to create an ‘inclusive heritage-based city development in India.’ The detailed project report identified 4.29 km stretch of the River Musi for action. It prescribed structural improvement to heritage buildings and retaining walls, development of signages in areas of historic significance and communal use, and rehabilitation of tangible and intangible heritage.

Telangana has tourism potential, but a relatively poor inflow of tourists. In April 2022, Hyderabad had a 4.69% share of foreign tourist arrivals compared to the 34.02% in Delhi and 14.2% in Mumbai. An industry report estimates the global tourism market to be a $570 billion industry in 2022 with the Asia-Pacific region having a 40% share. The industry is expected to grow at 3.8% CAGR and reach $778 billion. Add the industry insight that culture and heritage tourists spend more per day and stay longer at a place and it is a win-win situation for the cities that manage to achieve the status of a UNESCO World Heritage City and leverage it.

It is this industry and segment of business that is at stake. A small chunk of that can have a transformative influence on the economy, job creation, and sustainable development in Telangana. But to achieve the goal, the State will need an integrated approach rather than the current pick-and-choose model.

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