Learning through activism


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THE Quila Mubarak, a fortified palace complex in Patiala, comprises of numerous buildings. Until 1994, the inner palace known as the Quila Androon, was the sole building protected by the State Department of Archaeology. Between the Androon and the wall are several buildings and the quila wall has many shops that open onto the street outside. Further, most historical buildings inside the quila house various government offices even though their ownership vests with the Public Works Department of the state. As these department administrators do not own them, the buildings are not cared for and end up being abused.

Not only were new structures added to the complex in response to the growing needs of the offices, but lack of regular maintenance allowed growth of thick vegetation and damp in the walls. The PWD, as a consequence, decided to demolish these outer walls and buildings, declaring them as unsafe. This is not uncommon. Despite the absence of a mandate and expertise, the PWD routinely classifies such buildings unsafe and at times even willfully demolishes them. Some of the recently demolished buildings include the Sangrur fort and the Kanwar Sahib ki haveli in Patiala.

As regards the Quila Mubarak the PWD decided to pull down the periphery wall of the fort and make space for a shopping complex. It did not appreciate that the entire ensemble of buildings within the complex collectively contributes to the cultural significance of the site. Following a public interest litigation, the Punjab and Haryana High Court stayed the demolition and ordered the Secretary, Department of Culture, Government of Punjab, to constitute a technical committee to review the condition of the complex and submit a report within six months.

The five-member committee set up essentially included engineers and only one representative from the field of conservation (an activist). It so happened that at the end of the six months the committee failed to come up with the report required by the court. However, on the day after the hearing, the petitioner, INTACH, submitted its preliminary report. Among other matters it pointed out that the committee did not have any representation of experienced conservation professionals of historic buildings. It was only following this plea that heritage conservation professionals were included in the committee.



Differences with the chief engineer, PWD soon came to the fore because he was not sympathetic to the suggestion made by the newly formed committee that the quila complex was a cohesive whole. In protest, the newly appointed members boycotted the committee and prepared their own report. From their point of view, the integrity of a historic precinct had to be central to any proposed recommendations.

The technical committee (chaired by the chief engineer of the Public Works Department) was principally concerned with the structural condition of the historic fabric and economic factors. It applied a single criterion to the different parts of the complex – the ‘structural stability’ of the building or of its parts. These were graded as of A, B or C value – ‘A’ denoted parts in good condition; ‘B’ those that could be repaired and ‘C’ those that were unstable and thus recommended for demolition. In contrast, the report prepared by the committee (which included heritage specialists), laid down three criteria for assessment of the buildings: historic significance, architectural significance and structural condition.

As a consequence of the PIL, 17 public offices, including the Punjab Forensic Department, Punjab Government Department of Weights and Measures, District Treasury and many others, which till then were housed in the quila, were relocated. This was possible only because of the cooperation of the district administration that found alternative accommodation for the offices. Clearly, without the support and political will of the administration, this directive of the High Court, like many others, would have remained unattended for years.

The location of shops within the precints of the quila walls raised critical issues that need to be addressed. The shopkeepers are tenants of the Department of Culture of the Government of Punjab, which technically owns the shops. They have physically expanded the floor space of the shops by burrowing into the quila walls and by replacing the arches that spanned the shops by columns and beams. This has caused structural distress to the building that can potentially lead to collapse, thereby causing threat to life and property. While the shops are part of the original fabric of the building, and their continued use is recommended, it is important for shopkeepers to respect the built fabric and repair and maintain it appropriately. Issues of expenditure on care of the shops and rent paid needed to be addressed through negotiation and dialogue among the stakeholders. This was not done.



The above case highlights the many issues affecting the conservation of heritage, specially relating to protection. There are several buildings like the Quila Mubarak in Punjab where only a part of the complex is protected. This is on account of the lacuna in the system of listing and protection of monuments.

Inadequacies in the understanding and application of ‘protection’ to monuments create concern since they impact the care of key historic buildings of the state. In most cases protection is only limited to the physical structure of the monument. There is no consensus on criteria for determining either the extent to which the area around the monument directly impacts the heritage site, nor about the role of the many agencies involved with most of the historic properties in our urban areas.



Most of the state departments that own historic buildings lack an appropriate system to maintain them. For example, the PWD, one of the largest owners of historic buildings in the state, does not even have a separate division to manage and maintain the structures under its care. Nor does it have requisite knowledge for the conservation and maintenance of historic buildings. Most distressing is the absence of adequate information on the historic buildings, even within the department responsible for management and maintenance of such buildings and sites.

Few on-site managers, inadequate staffing, insufficient information on conservation work being undertaken, lack of precise documentation and poor records of buildings and sites, and a dearth of in-house expertise within the Department of Archaeology are some matters the state government needs to look into, as also an inadequate budget allocation and the absence of operational systems for prioritizing sites for conservation. Nor is there any government policy on integrating the historic buildings through development programmes into the urban fabric. Finally, the inappropriate composition of committees constituted to look into conservation matters makes them of no practical use as they are technically ill-equipped and insensitive to cultural issues.



Let us now look at the Anandpur Sahib litigation of 1999. This public interest litigation was concerned with the proposal of the Anandpur Sahib Urban Development Authority (ASUDA) to bulldoze an 80 foot wide road connecting two historic gurudwaras – Sri Keshgarh Sahib and the Sheeshganj Sahib through the historic town. The background to this litigation can be traced to the setting up of the Anandpur Sahib Urban Development Authority (ASUDA) with the authority to undertake interventions such as widening of roads.

Subsequently, in the year 1999 another organization, the Anandpur Sahib Foundation (ASF), was set up by the Punjab government to undertake various activities for the celebrations proposed in the Anandpur Sahib town marking 300 years of the Khalsa. The ASF commissioned a heritage project – to prepare a list of historic buildings and sites in the historic town of Anandpur – as one of its first activities.

The Punjab Regional and Town Planning and Development Act, 1995 provides for the preparation of Town Development Schemes with the provision among others, for ‘the preservation and protection of objects of historical importance of national interest or natural beauty and of buildings actually used for religious purpose’ [91(2)(l)]. The ASUDA, despite a mandate to prepare a town development scheme for the area, chose to bulldoze an 80 foot road which was originally built on a pedestrian scale through the historic town.

The PIL was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court around February 1999. The case was admitted and concerned parties asked to present their viewpoint. Since the ASUDA persisted with road widening, despite the matter being subjudice, the petitioners informed the court that the impact of this intervention could change the character of the old town. They also drew attention to the fact that while the Constitution of India provides for a ‘right to culture’, no existing legislation provides an inclusive enough definition of culture.



Some issues that emerged from this case were as follows:

* In the absence of a comprehensive definition of ‘heritage’ and a well-formulated understanding about urban conservation, the destruction of the historic urban fabric on account of development projects is inevitable. This is because on the one hand the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 looks only at individual monuments and, on the other, concerned departments are only interested in conserving within the site. Moreover, extant legislation governing urban development does not lay down guidelines for urban heritage conservation.

* There is an inadequate use of existing provisions in the Regional and Town Planning and Development Act for making special schemes for a historic zone.

* Despite numerous international charters that recommend special attention to historic precinct and zones when drawing up development plans for urban areas, none of these are made use of for developing concepts for urban conservation in any of our historic cities.

* Amendments are being made to existing legislations impacting urban development (town and regional planning acts) and management of urban areas (for example the Municipal Corporation Act) without adequate concern for the forward and backward linkages between these various legislations. No structural changes are being made to ensure implementation of these newly made provisions and little thought is being given to the financial mechanisms. Consequently, existing legislative provisions serve those who are literate enough to use them for public interest litigation and not for cultural heritage and community sensitive developments within historic cities and zones.



Unlike the earlier cases, the Kishankot Temple is a good example of community initiative to conserve its heritage. The temple was for years an unprotected building. The original owners had abandoned the village, for Delhi, over 20 years ago and no information about the temple was readily available in the revenue records. In this case the community took the judicial route to protect the monument.

Unfortunately, the rights and responsibilities of a community towards its heritage, which could empower it to protect the buildings from vandalism and encroachment, remain undefined. In this case the temple trust and the panchayat were in conflict – the village panchayat had no control over the land and the trust was not eligible to receive government funds. As part of the conservation effort to protect the temple, a joint committee was set up with members from both the temple trust as well as the panchayat so as to involve the people from the village in the conservation programme. Unfortunately, due to political interference the effort at setting up a common platform did not succeed.

Some of the activities closely linked to the conservation programme were capacity building of the temple trust and empowerment of subgroups within the community to participate in the management of the temple trust work. This was based on a critical understanding that cultural heritage belongs to the entire community. In conservation work it is important to ensure that conflicting political ideologies do not impact the work culture necessary for protecting and maintaining shared heritage. This was demonstrated by allowing for the participation of all members of the community who were interested in working on the conservation site. The youth in particular were enthusiastic about the new job at hand. Discussion on subjects deemed political and partisan in nature was discouraged on the work site and this became a fundamental principle respected by all.



In the Sri Harimandir Sahib complex at Amritsar, the original gold sheets covering the dome were applied in the early 19th century, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They were replaced between 1996-99 as part of renovation. Fresh sheets were placed over a layer of cement plaster, even though application of cement plaster over lime-based brick masonry is known to have a detrimental impact on the building fabric. This has been extensively researched worldwide in the conservation field.

The complex experiences intense pressure from urban development in the surrounding areas. The basic issues relate to inadequate urban regulation, visual clutter caused by hoardings and billboards, chaotic traffic and parking, poor waste management and inadequate facilities for visitors. Further, development projects are undertaken without coordination between the various organizations responsible for planning, developing and managing the city (District Town Planning Office, Municipal Corporation, Improvement Trust). There is also no participation of the local community in the development initiatives.

Since the State Department of Archaeology Act or the Central ASI Act does not protect the complex, despite its immense cultural value, urban development around the site remains unregulated. (The ASI Act earmarks a zone of 100 metres around protected monuments as a no development zone and another 200 metres as a zone for regulated development). No special provisions exist in any legislation which makes application of heritage sensitive rules and regulations mandatory for the management of the historic settings of such significant cultural sites.



The Lahori Gate in Sri Hargobindpur, one of the few surviving 17th century gates of this medieval city, is significant from both a historical and cultural perspective. It is as old as the gates of Shahjahanabad, the Mughal city of Delhi. It still survives in its original form and its architectural and historical integrity is intact. However, its structural condition is precarious. Though residents occasionally complain of falling bricks, the local government remains unconcerned about its upkeep. The ownership of the gate, however, lies with the local municipal authority and there are no funds allocated for its maintenance.

The gate houses 4-5 shops that were rented out in the 1950s. Though the shopkeepers have made additions to the shops, no one spends any money on the common spaces, viz. the roof of the gate at the second floor level. If the municipality were to remove the original roof and replace it with one of reinforced cement concrete, the building would both lose its original character and be harmed as well. Nevertheless the exterior walls of the building were repaired by applying a layer of cement plaster. In the absence of an understanding of the traditional materials and techniques, such ad hoc intervention effort for repair and consolidation can introduce other problems in these historic buildings.

The problem became magnified as it was proposed to sell the gate to the tenant shopkeepers. This was the result of a cabinet decision of the Government of Punjab in 1998, whereby all municipalities were ordered to sell shops that were on rent to the tenants at 40 per cent of the cost. The order was to be executed with the involvement of the district administration. A committee was set-up with the district collector as the chair to evaluate and fix a price for the buildings. No criteria, however, were drawn up for the evaluation of the historicity of the building. As a result many historic buildings, which house shops and are properties of the municipalities, became a casualty of the same policy.

These committees had representatives from the municipal corporations, as in the case of Sri Hargobindpur. In places where large PWD-owned properties were identified to be demolished to make way for new commercial complexes, the department involved was PUDA (Punjab Urban Development Authority).

Had the concerned authority proceeded with the sale and the ownership transferred to private hands, the protection and conservation of these buildings would have become impossible even for the state. In the absence of town development plans, which is the case in almost all small towns in India, such a policy of the government would have resulted in large-scale loss of our heritage.



Conflicts around sacred sites are commonplace in these troubled times. There are many instances in Punjab where oral tradition has become the source of history and not facts as recorded in history texts. An example is the Guru ki Maseet which according to both oral and written folk traditions was built by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru.

Many Islamic buildings in Punjab were abandoned after the Partition of India. Some are in use today though not as originally envisaged. These sites carry great potential for conflict. It is easier therefore to reclaim existing buildings that were abandoned. Since there are no papers to establish legal rights on the building, it is easier to undertake conservation work with the consent of the caretakers. In such cases it becomes imperative to determine the sources of oral tradition for establishing the historic value of buildings, especially because no written records exist. The methodology of conservation work and the definition of ‘community’ also need to be worked out.

The Sikh community maintained the Guru ki Maseet, even though the ownership lay with the Punjab Wakf Board. A principle challenge for the conservation project was to create conditions for dialogue and participation. This was a guiding principle to develop a methodology. One reason why this was possible is due to the fact that the building was neither state protected and nor was there any state funding for conservation.



The Kalanaur mosque in Gurdaspur was initially located in the midst of large open grounds. At the time of the conservation of the building, the land around the mosque had been ‘encroached’ or ‘developed’ with houses all around. Muslim Gujjars, who had settled in the vicinity of the city in more recent times, wanted to use the mosque. Such a situation exists in many other sites as well. The people living close to the mosque claimed that the Gujjars wanted to bury their dead there, in turn generating resistance by the local community.

The mosque is included in the list of notified properties of the Wakf Board that subsequently funded the conservation work. The Wakf was concerned about the education of the Gujjars, who normally do not send their children to school. They were keen on a small education programme to be run out of the mosque for very young children, to prepare them for admission to government schools.



This project raised some important questions for conservation methodology: How does one define the scope of conservation work in such situations? Should conservation work only seek to repair and restore the physical fabric of the building or should it also include the aspirations of the community while respecting the ‘idea’ of the building? What therefore, is the minimum list of things to be done in such conservation work?

The project ran into trouble once the first phase was completed following a change of Wakf Board officials. As the second installment of funds failed to materialize, the work was left incomplete. This is not unusual; funds often dry up when officers within government departments change. In the people’s perception of conservation work, this is a major cause for concern.

As one works on the various cultural sites there is much to learn. We professionals usually insist on understanding ‘conservation’ as a profession. It is, however, clear that conservation in India is not a static subject. Each historic building or site demands its own language for understanding, interpretation and intervention. While conservation is an applied science, it has its own philosophical and theoretical basis. Good conservation practice must evolve its methods and tools within this framework.