Telangana Heritage Bill Passed, what about Dharna Chowk?

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Two days before the world celebrates Heritage Day on April 18, the Telangana Assembly did something rather remarkable in its three-year history. It passed what is arguably the first of its kind heritage bill in the country. What about Dharna Chowk? Why is govt planning to move it?

Sitting in a special session on Sunday, the Telangana Assembly unanimously passed the Telangana Heritage (Protection, Preservation, Conservation, and Maintenance) Bill, 2017.

It is a moment to rejoice for all heritage lovers, since Hyderabad, a city steeped in history, is rapidly losing its heritage buildings and precincts to “development”.  This is the first time that a law is being enacted that addresses heritage as a sector in totality – including natural, archaeological monuments, historic buildings and intangible heritage.

Speculation on the details of the rules to be framed apart, the very fact that the hows and whats of protection and development of heritage will be addressed at the highest level of government is a welcome move.

About a year ago, the Telangana government scrapped Regulation 13 of the HUDA Zoning Regulations, promulgated in 1995, for the conservation of 137 Listed Heritage Buildings in Hyderabad. The regulation, the government said was inadequate, inconsistent and insufficient for holistic heritage preservation and management, as is evident from the present status and condition of the Listed Heritage structures in Hyderabad. The regulation was also narrowly applied to Hyderabad alone.

In the last three decades, only a handful of Listed buildings were restored in Hyderabad. These successful projects were initiatives taken up by the owners themselves, be it the Chowmahalla Palace or the Laxmi Paper Mart.

While the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad carried out the restoration of the Moazzam Jahi Market and Char Kaman, the condition of these structures was back to square one within no time. Under maintenance by the Roads and Buildings Department, heritage buildings like Osmania Hospital, Unani Hospital, Errum Manzil, and Sardar Mahal continue to crumble.

Nampally Sarai has partially collapsed, Mahal Wanaparthi has been pulled down and the St Mary’s Church reconstructed. The Old MCH Office Darush Shifa, the Ritz Hotel, the Mahboob Mansion and the Khurshid Jah Baradari look haunted and skeletal. Roads were widened in the demarcated Conservation Zone in the old city, defacing historic streets and the Charminar Pedestrianisation Project failed to build a positive dialogue.

While there could be many reasons for falling buildings, the crux of the issue has been the defective framing of heritage regulations.

Hyderabad was a trend setter in India, by beginning the process of Listing in the 1980s. A Heritage List was notified in 1997, and a list of 137 buildings and nine rock formations was notified in 1998. In 2000, six conservation precincts and 169 lakes were added. However, the notified List faced criticism for including only a miniscule percentage of sites from the rich and vast heritage of Hyderabad.

The grading of buildings was also a mismatch. Most of the Palaces of the Nizam, the 20th Century City Improvement Buildings and even the Former British Residency and other sites having the highest level of architectural and historical significance were placed in Grade II, instead of Grade I, which was illogical and unjustified.

One of the major positive points of the Regulations, however, was the introduction of Transferable Development Rights (TDR). Routing modification and repairs in Listed heritage buildings through the Heritage Conservation Committee sanctions was a check on implementation of the Rules and Regulations. And the master stroke was denial of permission for new building in cases where heritage buildings were demolished intentionally or accidentally. One clear example is the Malwala Palace, which remains an empty site after the beautiful palace was demolished by its owners.

These good things apart, the regulations failed not because of the concept, but because of lack of follow-up and detailing. The Heritage Conservation Committee did not have the authority or power to stop damage to heritage and sensitive urban areas. The Heritage List remained just a List – with no documentation, and no blue prints showing extents of sites, leaving scope for manipulation. The HCC was not given a budget or staff to take heritage conservation forward.

The failure of the Hyderabad Heritage Regulations lies in not envisaging the institutionalisation of a dedicated department with technical staff and personnel for coordinating and supporting owners in the restoration and upkeep of heritage structures.

The new Telangana Heritage Bill corrects exactly these lacunae, making it one of the most sensible things this government has done.

The Bill has a proper definition for heritage, broadly including natural, built and intangible heritage and includes National and State Protected Sites for management purposes, as a starting point.

It provides for a the setting up of a Telangana State Heritage Authority (TSHA) with a Chairman and Officials from the Departments of Tourism, Culture, MA & UD, Education and Finance as Members. It will have the Director of the Archaeology Department as the Convener.

The TSHA is mandated to prepare a preliminary list of heritage sites for submission to the government, to accord sanctions and permissions for development of heritage sites, facilitate restoration and to advise the government on heritage matters.

The Bill also envisages formation of District level Heritage Committees, a merciful first, with the District Collector as chairman and all other officials and experts as members. Besides this, the Greater Hyderabad area will have its own heritage committee.

Besides listing of sites, the TSHA will also set up museums and conduct excavations. A general Heritage Fund is to be created from municipal funds and donations

While making a provision for well-delineated institutional mechanisms for heritage is a welcome move, the fact that the Director of the TSHA does not appear to have sufficient autonomy is something to examine with care.

Heritage Conservation is a specialised subject. Heritage buildings, like any other infrastructure projects, require heavy investment for restoration and maintenance. Restoration projects should plan for long term maintenance and management plans. Historic building owners need both technical and financial support and guidance from government, investors and society.

Without technical and financial support, heritage movements become a subject of coffee table discussions and the sites are left for educational tours of school children.

On World Heritage Day, as cities across the world celebrate their rich legacy in a befitting manner, Telangana also has something to look forward to. And finally, a state with so much of unexplored historical wealth will find a custodian for its orphaned heritage.

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