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At last, hope for heritage

The state government is considering modifying the heritage laws to preserve and protect the architectural and cultural ethos of the state.

Shuvaprasanna, the chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, said on Monday the changes were being mulled to protect buildings of a certain age and style that are being rampantly pulled down in north Calcutta and certain pockets in the south, such as Bhowanipore, to construct high-rise buildings.

“The new laws will be on the lines of heritage laws in the West,” said the painter at a press conference in the commission’s office at Behala. “An attempt will be made to formulate the incentives that may be given to house owners so that they find it worthwhile to preserve their buildings with a distinctive character irrespective of age.”

After Partition, he added, land was much in demand and many heritage buildings were knocked down, including the Senate Hall of Calcutta University, which Dr B.C. Roy had ordered to be demolished to make way for a new building as there was paucity of space.

A six-month deadline has been set to complete the draft of the new legislation. Thereafter, the draft will be posted on the heritage commission’s website inviting comments from the public on the proposal.

The press conference was also attended by writer Amit Chaudhuri, Harvard professor Sugata Bose and architect Partha Ranjan Das.

Chaudhuri said Calcutta was a city where modernity was first articulated in Asia, coterminously with Europe. If there is ever a revival in the fortunes of the city, and most old houses and precincts are gone by then, as in Hong Kong, “such a future will be creatively hollow”.

He said, of late, old houses were being sold only to be pulled down so that the land can used to construct a highrise building.

It is only the land that matters. Not the building. He stressed that it should be the other way round. A house that has been conserved should go up in value.

The impact of high-rise structures built on roads where smaller houses were located can be disastrous, he said. So there is an urgent need to change heritage laws.

Bose’s emphasis was on conservation of precincts. He said even Asian cities like Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam and Yangon were being conserved and there should be an effort to retain the character of neighbourhoods.

Das said earlier, north Calcutta was identified by its rowaks, a Bengali word which can be roughly translated as a porch, and Rashbehari by its porte-cochere, all of which is gone. This had a negative impact on the history and social fabric of the city.

Unlike in gated communities, such features created stronger bonds among people of a certain neighbourhood. This apart, older houses are far more energy efficient than new ones.