Revitalising our walled cities

DEBASHISH NAYAK

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‘The search for identity, for a sense of where we belong in a changing world, appears today to be both a personal and a general quest. The reasons may go far beyond a purely intellectual quest to a yearning for stability through a sense of belonging and a knowledge of where we have come from; and behind this may lie deep-seated worries about where we – as a race, as a nation, as individuals – may be going.’

Martin Bibble1

 

MOST Indian cities with a long history have at their core areas of strong architectural and urban character. These areas have been places of life, vitality, wealth, power, enlightenment and culture. However, these inner city areas have been marginalized in the process of urban growth.

The personality and character of a city is the result of centuries of growth in the course of which new elements are constantly juxtaposed with the older ones. Old buildings and older areas of the city should be looked upon as assets rather than liabilities because they represent the history of communities, embodying their tradition, heritage and culture through architecture and the urban form.

Ratna Naidu in her paper on ‘A Conceptual Framework for the Renewal of Walled Cities in India’ remarks that: ‘Deprived of the economic opportunities with the dismantling of the feudal structure and deprived of its elite who are usually the powerful spokesmen for the maintenance and enhancement of civic amenities, the walled city has become a victim of blight. The walled city today as an area languishes from multiple deprivation such as poverty of urban infrastructure, poverty of income and employment of its residents and their lack of access to the power elite who formulate policies for the urban region. These interlocking cycles of deprivation are poised to destroy a priceless heritage. The walled city was once a viable form in which lived the rich, middle and lower classes belonging to different ethnic groups – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs – in peace and harmony.’

‘Despite its present dilapidated condition the opulence and lifestyles of the past are still very much in evidence in the form of innumerable public monuments and private mansions, though in decay and in need of urgent repair. Many rich and middle class families belonging to different ethnic groups still continue to live in the walled city. And in many of its areas there exists a high quality of essential services like water, sanitation and sewerage. Land values in several areas of the walled city are as high as those in the upper class area outside the walled city.’

The discussion clearly indicates that though the walled city areas are today dilapidated, there is still a hope of survival, of improvement, of getting life back to them.

 

 

Efforts at understanding the concept of urban conservation in the old walled cities of India have definitely gained momentum. Heritage has now become a much talked about issue in the context of Indian cities – Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi, among others.

An innovative programme was started in 1989 by the CRUTA Foundation (Foundation for Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture). The foundation organized local walks, tours and slide shows in North Calcutta. CRUTA believed that Calcutta’s architectural heritage could match that of the finest cities in the world. The enlightened precepts and the social reform initiatives of many of the historical personalities who once lived in North Calcutta was one basis for this assertion.2

CRUTA realized that local residents needed to be exhorted to take pride in their neighbourhood and revive the para culture, with the objective of promoting wider awareness about the importance of the place and contributing to the growth of a local ethic of ownership and responsibility. It organized conservation workshops with internationally renowned authorities, ensuring a regular media coverage. The tourism potential in architecturally important areas was highlighted.

 

 

As was the experience of many other conservation architects, it took CRUTA some time to make people believe in the benefits of urban conservation. ‘Before and after’ pictures were used to show the people and the authorities that many cities elsewhere were doing well because the citizens of those countries had taken up many of the responsibilities on themselves.

As a result CRUTA acquired a much stronger presence with a base in the actual local community in Calcutta. The issue of urban conservation gained a greater importance in the public domain. CRUTA also initiated an intellectual effort, beginning with the documentation and communication of the implicit approach, strategy and programme underlying the neighbourhood-based, community-led change that had been stimulated.

The necessary supportive policy and other actions on the part of the authorities, as well as the requisite capital investment, were explicated. Ideas were floated on possible area-based cultural festivals and other events. With growing institutional interest in restoration projects, documentation was generated on the importance of retaining a process outlook in such projects, involving public awareness and education and catalysing community participation as well as larger area revitalization.

The urban heritage of Bengal was explored and the idea of a ‘Bengal urban heritage corridor’ was floated, involving a number of historic towns along the river Hoogly, which offered good potential for heritage tourism based revitalization. CRUTA crossed another milestone in 1995 when it was commissioned to prepare a report on the revitalization of Barra Bazaar, the highly congested blighted commercial centre of Calcutta.3

The efforts of CRUTA and other organizations helped raise consciousness about urban conservation in the city. Inspired by its success, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation invited CRUTA to undertake similar efforts in Ahmedabad, particularly for the conservation and improvement of the architectural heritage of its walled city.

 

 

The birth of the old city settlement of Ahmedabad dates back to a 10th century town of Ashaval. In the latter part of the 11th century, another city known as Karnavati grew adjacent to Ashaval. The present walled city was created during the Ahmed Shahi period in the 15th century. A new palace and fort were built near Bhadra covering a rectangular area of around 500-800 meters.

However, the 18th century saw the city’s decline. Many suburbs and even parts of the inner city were abandoned and ruined as new wholesale markets at Kalupur, mechanized industries and worker’s quarters on the eastern suburbs, Ellis Bridge, residential buildings and educational institutions were established. Most fort walls were pulled down in the early part of the 20th century. The absence of a decentralization policy with regard to economic activities resulted in congestion and decay of the walled city.

The walled city of Ahmedabad follows a radial pattern of streets with twelve gates. Each micro neighbourhood around residential streets is called a pol, which consists of a street with houses on both sides. Often it would have two gates barring entry at night.

 

 

The challenge of a hot, dry climate and extreme conditions was well addressed by the traditional craftsmen of the old era. The narrow winding streets with two or three storey buildings ensured shade on the streets for most of the day. The typical row house pattern reduced exposure to extreme heat. Courtyards and openings aligned in straight lines ensured good airflow through buildings. Havelis in intricately carved wood, Hindu temples in wood and stone, Islamic and Jain religious buildings in stone are among the different styles that comprise the walled city of Ahmedabad.

The collaboration between the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and CRUTA eventually emerged as a milestone in the history of urban conservation efforts in the context of Indian cities. The AMC became the first municipal corporation to set up a heritage cell. Till then, the various efforts in different cities had failed to achieve a mainstream, institutional status.

However, the problems continue – commercial activity attracts large volumes of traffic; lack of parking space and regular traffic jams; subdivision of housing units and increasing pressure on infrastructure systems; change in land use resulting in the breakdown of the traditional social fabric; a lack of awareness and appreciation of traditional architecture with its inherent advantages, and breakdown of the traditional local governance system (panch). Involving the community, spreading awareness about the need for urban conservation and, more importantly, putting a check on the demolition of heritage properties in the walled city to build commercial centres, remain important and challenging tasks facing the AMC heritage programme.

The heritage cell at AMC succeeded in introducing a byelaw in the General Development Control Regulations prohibiting any heritage property from being pulled down without prior permission from the heritage cell. This eventually saved many structures in and around the walled city.

 

 

Community participation was recognised as a major method to convey the entire idea at a much larger scale and ensure a much better rapport. A series of activities were organized to elicit community participation and ensure that people take pride in their surroundings and are involved in conservation efforts. Meetings were held in the walled city ‘Khadia’ to discuss strategies for conservation and development of the area bring ing together many citizen’s groups, renowned personalities and AMC officials to discuss the matter on a common platform.

Following this, citizen’s groups and the municipal authority jointly organized the first public programme, ‘Preservation of the Past and Glimpses of History’ at Desai-ni-Pol in Khadia on 19 November 1996. The residents of Desai-ni-Pol (its rebellious past during British rule gave it a place in history), released a booklet to mark heritage day, listing the historical homes and personalities who lived in the area as also a chronicle of important events.

 

 

On 14 August 1997, a freedom walk, Krantidarshan Padyatra was organized around several houses connected with the history of Indian freedom struggle. Twenty-eight important houses were identified and the citizens under the leadership of elected and government officials visited them. The birthday of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was celebrated on 23 January 1998 at Bengal Home in Dhobi-ni-Pol, established in 1905 as a centre where revolutionaries from Bengal trained local people during the freedom struggle.

A kavi sammelan (poets’ meet) was organized on Kavi Dalpatram’s death anniversary on 25 March 1998 in the pol where he used to live. Organizations like the Gujarat Sahitya Parishad also worked to make it a success. The enthusiastic response to the kavi sammelan resulted in a unique memorial at the site of his house, designed with the help of the AMC in collaboration with the Swami Narayan Mandir, Kalupur. The memorial serves as a site where plays, recitations and other features linked with Dalpatram are enthusiastically performed.

A heritage walk was initiated which passes through the old neighbourhoods. The programme was well publicized through brochures and posters. The community itself came forward to help . This eventually led to the establishment of a heritage cell within the municipal authority. A street signage programme was launched where street plates bearing the name of the area and municipal symbols were displayed at the entrance of each pol, providing recognition and identity.

A project to revive local self-governance in the walled city with the help of public participation was started in collaboration with the Ahmedabad Community Foundation. The project aims at recognizing the panch, the key persons for information dissemination, as formal representatives and thus help improve living conditions in the pol.

Street plays with participation of the local community and eminent personalities from the area were organized, bringing people together on a common platform to understand the issues.

 

 

Various efforts were also under taken to conserve the architectural heritage in the walled city area through inter-departmental and public-private partnerships to carry out actual restoration projects, which can serve as examples for people who want to restore their old properties and structures.

The AMC in association with ASI began a beautification process focusing on the fort wall and city gates. While the ASI concentrates on physical restoration, the AMC handles landscape and lighting around the gates. The AMC with the assistance of the state government and the Gujarat Archaeological Department provides a 50% grant for façade restoration. This programme includes citizen groups and NGOs. The Kanubhai Dayabhai Mehta Chetna Pravruti Kendra serves as a training centre in an old restored building in the walled city.

The AMC identified an old building near Panchkuwa Gate for conservation. This building was restored and used as a ward office. Inspired by the heritage initiative, the Collector of Ahmedabad requested AMC to help design a heritage gate for their complex and initiate renovation of their buildings.

Alongside the interdepartmental and public-private partnerships, collaborations with international agencies are also important in order to acquire a wider perspective and awareness of methods and approaches. The AMC has collaborated with many such international agencies that are now working for the benefit of the walled city of Ahmedabad.

On 14 January 2001, under the 74th amendment to the Constitution, the AMC signed a MoU with the French government for a scientific study of the walled city resulting in a survey of the walled city area. On 18 February 2003, another MoU was signed under which a French team, jointly with AMC staff, is working to actually restore heritage properties in the walled city. The team is providing free consultancy for the restoration of properties.

The AMC has also initiated collaboration with the Dutch who had a small presence in Ahmedabad in earlier days through trade and commerce. A Dutch factory and graveyard is a reminder of their past presence in the city. Both restoration projects and an interpretation booklet exploring the related history are under preparation.

The walled city of Ahmedabad was included in the list of endangered heritage sites by the World Monument Fund. This helped attract international attention and intensify the conservation activities in the walled city.

 

 

Crucial to the above is the financial aspect which governs a major part of the entire exercise of urban conservation. The AMC heritage programme has come up with many alternatives: on 31 January 2000, the HUDCO board approved an investment programme of heritage exploration in a septennial cycle. On the occasion of World Heritage Day a MoU was signed between AMC and HUDCO detailing the financial implication in this sector, making for the first time properties older than 15-20 years eligible for loans at low interest.

The AMC and French government collaboration has involved local banks to fund restoration projects. For example, the SEWA Bank gives loans for house restoration in case the property is in the name of a woman. Many local trusts like the Swami Narayan Temple Trust also provide loans for restoration and renovation.

The response has been overwhelming. Changes in the heritage byelaw has had a visible effect and many buildings have been saved from being pulled down. Further changes in the heritage byelaw are in the offing.

 

 

Inspired by the successful initiatives of the AMC in the field of urban conservation, the Rajasthan government requested the heritage cell to assist in the process of urban conservation for the walled city of Jaipur. A full programme of slide shows and lecture series was conducted by the heritage cell and a heritage walk was designed and launched for the walled city Jaipur.

Jaipur is a remarkable city from the point of view of planning, design and the exquisite craftsmanship displayed in its built form. It was constructed in 1728. Based on ancient Indian principles of town planning, the city is gridiron with wide straight streets intersecting at right angles. This is rather uncommon for Indian cities, which are mostly organic in character with a branching pattern of streets. Almost squarish in plan, the city is divided into nine sectors, corresponding to the nine treasures of Kubera, the lord of wealth.

There are three categories of streets; the primary streets form sectors that are subdivided into smaller blocks by secondary and tertiary streets. Each street makes a context within a sector. There is a clear hierarchy, both functional and visual with each street generating different activities, which change when the order of the street changes. Each dwelling is a part of a broad system organized within a parallel framework akin to row housing with houses having common sidewalls with the adjoining houses.

The walled city of Jaipur suffers from an enormous pressure on its traditional urban fabric, which is constantly getting transformed to accommodate and adjust to the new land use, materials and transport systems. The major problems include traffic congestion, inadequate public facilities, lack of awareness of the value of local heritage, lack of proper signage, and improper solid waste management.

 

 

Since the economy is weak and people are struggling to earn a basic living, conservation cannot be reduced to repair and restoration of monuments. To be sustainable and successful, the process has to improve people’s lives. At the local level we need to facilitate people’s participation in management and urban governance and technical capacity building alongside raising awareness of the value of local heritage to ensure socio-economic development. At the institutional level there is need to improve tourism facilities, ensure compatible land use, regulate development and improve the infrastructure facilities.

The lifestyle and culture of the people of Jaipur is quite different from that of Ahmedabad. The walled city of Jaipur also had a different dimension than that of the walled city of Ahmedabad. Consequently the efforts have to follow a different format.

Public participation was seen as crucial and fortunately it turned out to be successful. Today, conservation activities have gained the status of citizen’s initiatives, which is an achievement in itself.

 

 

The launching of the heritage walk of Jaipur in 2001 became a milestone which in turn initiated many efforts. The heritage walk of Jaipur goes through the inner lanes and streets of the Modikhana Chowkri of the walled city area. This became very popular, as the shopkeepers could now attract foreign customers, who earlier never visited the inner areas. The heritage walk is a process whereby conservation and restoration can happen at a pace set by the local inhabitants, the real owners of the city.

Another important component of the heritage conservation effort was the initiation of an annual Jaipur Heritage Week. This became popular and provided a common platform to all the artists, craftsmen, residents of the walled city, municipal officers, NGOs and other institutions to come together to experience the richness of the tradition and culture. The event also achieved international recognition and appreciation.

INTACH (a national NGO, with a local chapter in Jaipur) has been involved in raising awareness of heritage conservation. It has been actively involved in building projects related to heritage and bringing the different stake-holders and partners on a common platform. It has been working with and through the JMC while coordinating the efforts of the Jaipur Municipal Corporation, the state government, the tourism department among others.

Further, Intach has facilitated the formation of a citizens’ forum – Jaipur Virasat Foundation – which is a joint initiative with the government to conserve and revitalize the city. A forum of citizens committed to build community awareness and participation, it has initiated programmes such as introducing heritage conservation into the regular school curriculum.

An Asia-Urbs Programme is also in action at Jaipur, for which the European Union provides grants for capacity building to the Jaipur Municipal Corporation for urban conservation. The overall objective of the Asia-Urbs project is to contribute to socio-economic development of Jaipur based on tourism through an enhancement of the walled city, improving the capacity of local authorities and increasing awareness of the community on specific urban issues.

The Rajasthan government has also borrowed a large sum of money from the Asian Development Bank to improve the urban environment of several cities in the state. For Jaipur, 10% of the total budget of Rs 500 crore has been allotted to the restoration of the city’s heritage.

In addition, the state government has drafted a notification to protect heritage sites and buildings to control haphazard development. A heritage cell has been constituted as part of the JMC to initiate basic documentation of the walled city and conduct meetings for information gathering and sharing. Finally, a ‘living history of Jaipur’ programme as part of daily attraction for visitors to the city is being prepared alongside attempts to create a common platform for different stakeholder groups and key citizens to financially assist the process.

The response to these different initiatives in heritage conservation has been overwhelming. The efforts have been able to reach down to the school level, instilling the message of heritage conservation in the minds of young students. Ignorance has given way to understanding and consciousness. People are now supporting the idea of urban conservation, which initially was seen primarily as an excuse to impose fresh restrictions on development activity.

The efforts in Ahmedabad and Jaipur have generated valuable experience for other cities that too wish to conserve their heritage. Both examples foreground different aspects and initiatives to achieve a similar goal. In Ahmedabad, the work began with the setting up of a heritage cell within the Municipal Corporation while in Jaipur it was community participation that served as the major entry point to success.

The City Manager’s Association of Gujarat has recognized the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for best practices in the field of heritage conservation. Subsequently, the Ahmedabad model was replicated in other cities of Gujarat under the Best Practice Transfer Programme of the City Manager’s Association. Similar steps in heritage conservation have now been taken up in the municipalities of Siddhpur and Bhuj in association with NGOs.

Various other cities like Amritsar, Delhi, Patiala and Pondicherry have also invited CRUTA to help begin similar efforts/initiatives in their own cities. Already heritage walks have been planned for many of these cities. The organizational set-up at Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is shown below.

 

 

INTACH is already active at the national level to develop the field of heritage and natural resource conservation. It has assisted CRUTA Foundation and other heritage conservation bodies to achieve the holistic goal of urban conservation.

The salient features of the methodology adopted include: An effort to understand the history and urban character of the old city; building on past experiences of Ahmedabad, other parts of the country and abroad; identifying and sharing the concerns of the old city; building strategic partnerships with communities, various departments and agencies, elected representatives and others; establishing a sustainable process of transformation; sharing experiences; and documenting the process and lessons learnt.

The effort in Jaipur was, however, more focused on community participation and public involvement. It was successful in reaching out to the schools and through it to the students and children who will be future heritage mangers. Students have been encouraged to write for the special issue Gobar Times on various issues affecting the city of Jaipur. The children were also taken for walks to instill in them an attachment to their past heritage.

Another noteworthy achievement was that many organizations came together to advance this concern and effort – Jaipur Virasat Foundation, INTACH, Asia-Urbs team, among others. Figure I explains the connections between the various authorities to achieve urban conservation for the city of Jaipur by using the strategy of heritage walks. Figure II shows the methodology adopted by the authorities to achieve the holistic aim of making Jaipur a world heritage city.

 

 

Urban conservation as an issue needs utmost attention and care. It cannot be reduced to individual buildings or monuments of historic interest, nor can it be interpreted simply as a totality of the built parts. For effective conservation of historic towns, the interventions should from an integral part of a coherent policy of economic and social development and urban planning.

 

 

Footnotes:

1. Martin Bibble, ‘The Experiences of the Past: Archaeology and History in Conservation and Development’.

2. V. Ramaswamy, August 1999; Rebuilding Our Cities: Reflections from a journey in civic activism.

3. V. Ramaswamy, August 1999; ibid.

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