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ASI and INTACH Highlight Need To Preserve Unprotected Cultural Sites During World Heritage Week

According to an ASI top official, just because a building or a monument isn’t listed doesn’t mean it doesn’t have heritage value.

Thousands of architecturally and historically significant heritage buildings across the country – from Patna to Bengaluru – have been left unprotected as a result of urbanisation, with many of them facing decay or demolition. According to an official with the Archaeological Survey of India, just because a structure or monument isn’t listed with the ASI or another agency doesn’t mean it has no heritage value.

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INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) officials pointed out that every year, unprotected cultural sites in India are overshadowed by well-protected and celebrated heritage buildings during World Heritage Week, which runs from November 19 to November 25.

In Bihar, many historic structures have been demolished.

Despite being one of the last surviving signature works of Dutch architecture that is spread over 12 acres and endowed with high ceilings, huge doors, and hanging skylights, the centuries-old Patna Collectorate is not protected by the ASI or the state government.

In 2016, the Bihar government proposed building a new complex to replace the collectorate on the Ganga’s banks. However, this action sparked a public outcry, and appeals were made from India and abroad, including from the then-Dutch ambassador, to save the landmark. The bulldozers were halted by a Supreme Court stay on September 18, 2020.

Several iconic buildings, including the over 100-year-old Gole Market, old Baoli Hall, 1885-built Anjuman Islamia Hall, District and Sessions Judge Bungalow, Civil Surgeon’s Bungalow, City SP Bungalow, and New Police Lines, have been demolished by the state government for several years.

Despite protests from historians, heritage advocates, and INTACH, the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), which was founded in 1925 as the Prince of Wales Medical College in Bihar and was Orissa’s first medical college, is set to be demolished to make way for a new state-of-the-art hospital complex.

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Bangalore’s Asiatic Building

Protests had previously erupted over plans to demolish the Asiatic Building, which opened in 1935 and was designed by noted German architect G H Krumbiegel. A PIL filed by the INTACH Bangalore Chapter was granted a stay by the Karnataka High Court in 2019.

“Isn’t it ironic that people have to go to court to save our heritage buildings?” said one expert.” According to a senior ASI official, a site or building must be at least 100 years old and of national significance to be included in the ASI.

“The ASI had its own constraints, and we are managing a large number of sites despite a staffing shortage,” he explained. However, in the case of centuries-old structures such as the Patna Collectorate or other historic structures in other states, the state should be responsible for protecting them, or any local body can notify them.”

The ASI protects approximately 3,600 monuments and 50 museums in India, and each state has its own state-level listing of protected monuments and many protected structures that fall under the jurisdiction of local urban bodies.

In response to a question about whether the ASI can intervene to protect historically significant buildings, the official stated, “Because India has a federal structure, any proposal to bring a state-owned site under the ASI should ideally come from the state authorities. They can also come to us for technical help, which we provide. If the structure is truly significant, the ASI can also file a complaint with a state or local government, but they will bear the burden of proof, as we cannot intervene in a state matter.”

World Heritage Week
World Heritage Week

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The Delhi-based project of INATCH

From 2015 to 2017, the Delhi-based INTACH undertook the SoBHI (State of Built Heritage in India) project to document a large number of old buildings and structures across India that are unprotected despite being historically or architecturally significant.

The SoBHI only did a “representative mapping” of such sites across various parameters, but the estimated number of unprotected buildings will be overwhelming, given that Indian cities — from Delhi to Indore and Kanpur to Kochi — are literally filled with old structures ranging in size from large streets to narrow lanes, according to officials.

“Of the several thousands of unprotected sites that were included as contributed cases and secondary source information for SoBHI study, about 1,600 representative sites were taken up for primary surveys (that were undertaken with extensive inventory forms,” a senior official of the heritage NGO said.

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