Heritage out of commission, projects in limbo

The West Bengal Heritage Commission, formed in 2001, has been out of commission for the past year and there is uncertainty about the fate of 15 projects for which the Centre has recently released Rs 39.78 crore.

By Soumitra Das
  • Published 18.06.15

The West Bengal Heritage Commission, formed in 2001, has been out of commission for the past year and there is uncertainty about the fate of 15 projects for which the Centre has recently released Rs 39.78 crore.

Shuvaprasanna, chairman of the commission, still holds his post for the second three-year term, but the remaining 20 members, save the mayors of Calcutta and Howrah, have not yet received the state government's approval.

With just three members now, the commission is in limbo. And if a highly-placed source is to be believed, this situation is likely to continue as the state government has no time for heritage.

The West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC) Act, 2001, was enacted "for the purpose of identifying heritage buildings, monuments, precincts and sites and for measures for their restoration and preservation".

Bengal is the only state which has such a statutory body exclusively to protect its built heritage.

The act states: "The Commission shall be chaired by an eminent person with concern and commitment for Heritage Conservation and shall consist of not more than twenty-one members interested in all matters relating to the national and regional heritage... eleven members from the areas of specialisation, namely, History, Art-History, Fine Arts, Architecture, Conservation..."

And most importantly, the act holds that "...Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, no local authority shall take any step for identification, preservation, conservation or restoration of any heritage building, not consistent with the determination or advice of the Commission..."

But exactly the opposite is happening. Shuvaprasanna is on his second three-year term as chairman, during which period the panel shifted to its new address, 1 SN Roy Road in Behala. But now that its wings have been clipped, Shuvaprasanna complains: "No work can be done without experts. The list of new expert committee members was sent to the information and cultural affairs department. But they have not responded yet."

Without any staff, the office of the commission is practically deserted now.

The commission has completed the restoration of 81 of the 167 sites it has declared as heritage sites, since it started functioning in 2005. Work has started at several other sites as well.

Once the commission became redundant, its advisory role was appropriated by the directorate of archaeology and museums of the state government, or more specifically, the audit and accounts wing of the directorate.

Now, instead of the commission, which was a civic body comprising members from a broad spectrum of professions and disciplines, only government employees without the necessary expertise are calling the shots.

Partha Ranjan Das, former chairman, project committee, of the WBHC, who was also a member of the commission, says the money released recently by the Centre was done on the basis of the DPRs sent by the empanelled consultants. The PWD is getting the work done by contractors and it is being monitored by the directorate of archaeology and museums. "The PWD is awarding jobs to contractors who used to make roads till yesterday," Das alleges. They are allegedly making ad hoc decisions, ignoring the terms and conditions on which the funds were released.

Consultants - there were 12 empanelled consultants on the WBHC - are not being paid their dues. The Centre had stipulated that consultants would be reimbursed 7.5 per cent of project costs, plus travel and lodging. Das says he had simplified it by raising the amount to 8 per cent. He alleges that the directorate of archaeology and museums has decided not to pay this sum and the consultants are aggrieved.

Prior to the WBHC, the West Bengal Preservation of Historical Monuments and Objects and Excavation of Archaeological Sites Act 1957 was in force. Most of the work was done by the PWD through the zilla parishads. In 2013, the WBHC executed 13 projects at a cost of Rs 4.07 crore. But the directorate of archaeology and museums source alleges that there were complaints about inadequate protection of "archaeological values" by the WBHC. While executing the projects, it was realised that the WBHC did not have adequate infrastructure as its engineers were mostly retired personnel inducted on a contractual basis.

Because of these problems, the source continued, the state government decided in 2013-14 that the PWD will execute the projects and the funds for 26 projects will go directly to the PWD chief engineer. The tender process for the new projects will begin from next month. The source added that "the PWD wants to directly execute the projects, but we want to retain the consultants." With the WBHC gone, there is nobody there to monitor the projects.

The WBHC was a civic body representing the people of the state. Now only representatives of the state government are deciding what will happen with the Central funds. Earlier, the district magistrate had no administrative role. But in the current dispensation, both the PWD and the district magistrate have the last word.

Asked how it was possible for conservation work to be done without the active participation of consultants and experts, Namita Roy Mallik, joint secretary and ex-officio director of culture, government of West Bengal, who is also secretary, WBHC, typically replies: "Why, the PWD and district magistrates are together doing the work. They consult an earlier photograph of a heritage structure and go by it."

But that is a simplistic way of looking at a very complex process involving knowledge of history, engineering, architecture and aesthetics. Without commenting on the WBHC controversy, Bente Wolff, curator and project coordinator, National Museum of Denmark, who is involved in the restoration projects in Serampore, said in an interview over the telephone: "It is very specialised work requiring very qualified contractors as well as architects." This rule is being observed in the breach.

Tapati Guha Thakurta, director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, wonders if the Commission will be disbanded. The consultants wrote the DPRs, and now that the Centre has released funds, these are being quickly distributed through district magistrates rather than reconstituting the body. The commission was ignored even when the Writers' Buildings restoration project was started. So no expertise is required any more. Anybody can do any work.