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Conserving Ahmedabad’s heritage

Conserving Ahmedabad’s heritage
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First Published: Tue, Jul 13 2010. 05 56 AM IST

Building blocks: Jagdip Mehta in his haveli. Ramesh Dave / Mint
Building blocks: Jagdip Mehta in his haveli. Ramesh Dave / Mint
Updated: Wed, Jul 14 2010. 10 49 AM IST
Ahmedabad: When in 1998, Jagdip Mehta bought his haveli in the walled city, the decision was hardly a no-brainer. Mehta paid Rs3 lakh for a dilapidated hull of a house, its interiors in such shambles that they bore painful witness to every one of their 200-odd years. He clearly needed another few lakh rupees to restore the house, a significant sum for an accountant and amateur musician. “We were living right next door, 11 of us in our joint family,” Mehta says. “We needed the space.”
Almost immediately, though, Mehta fell into financial trouble, and his first thought was to sell the haveli. “And you know, we initially found no buyers,” he says. “Then we contacted Debashish Nayak, who told us that the house had heritage value. He persuaded us not to sell, and to wait until we could get a loan, to restore the haveli. If we’d sold it, it would have probably turned into a godown.”
Nayak, a genial, perpetually kurta’d man, has, since the mid-1990s, been an adviser to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s (AMC) heritage programme. He works with AMC but is not a part of it. He says this enables him to remain independent and still change the system, but it also makes him, as a real estate developer named Rajeev Patel puts it, “simultaneously everybody’s child and nobody’s child”. Nayak’s struggle to preserve the city’s old buildings— well publicized, and not least by him—culminated in the formation of a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) this February.
HCC is intended to evolve broad guidelines for conserving the character of the walled city, and to decide on specific cases of old buildings, but it has already begun to face intractable issues of heritage economics. Further, its deliberative, holistic view of its mission rubs against Nayak’s style of conservation work, which is rapid and which some detractors call “cosmetic”.
Building blocks: Jagdip Mehta in his haveli. Ramesh Dave / Mint
As in the case of Mehta’s haveli, much of Nayak’s career has depended upon his gift of persuasion. An architect by training—“although he’s really an activist”, P.K. Vasudevan Nair, a colleague at AMC, muses—Nayak founded the Foundation for Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture (Cruta), an NGO, to persuade Kolkata to pay attention to its heritage buildings.
Nayak caught AMC’s eye when, in 1991, he made a presentation there on Cruta’s work in Kolkata. (In those days, he travelled everywhere with a slide projector, “packing it right after my toiletries kit”.) Nayak had helped restore a Kolkata house that once belonged to one of Lord Clive’s accountants, and AMC’s deputy commissioner at the time, P.K. Ghosh, recognized the property instantly.
“I started taking him around the old city,” Ghosh recalls, “and recommended that he work in Ahmedabad”. The city certainly needed somebody to pay attention to its old neighbourhoods, called pols, and to the havelis therein. Pieces of havelis—doors, lintels, window frames—were being stripped for wood, or they were turning up, singly, in museums as far away as the US.
After he shifted base, Nayak first persuaded the city’s corporation to open a Heritage Cell within it—the first such in the country—in 1997. (The cell now implements HCC’s decisions.) Then, for a long decade, he used the cell to lobby for regulations for heritage structures within the building code so that none of the protected buildings on a 12,500-strong list could be demolished or renovated without permission.
In parallel, Nayak convinced individual owners such as Mehta to not only hold on to their properties but to actually take on debt to restore them. When he discovered that banks weren’t allowed to issue home renovation loans for buildings older than 15 years, he pushed for that law to be changed; Mehta received the first such loan from Housing and Urban Development Corp. Ltd (Hudco). “It made sense,” Nayak says. “We’re dealing with buildings with a minimum age of 100 years.”
Over the years, Nayak says, he has steered towards conservation at least 250 buildings, organizing free technical consultancy and funds from philanthropists or government sources. The cell’s budget itself is Rs1 crore, 70% of which helps restore public property— gates, say, or the walls of the fort. “We have Rs50 lakh worth of public property being restored right now,” Nayak says, indicating a whiteboard hanging above his desk. On it, projects are priced with unnerving precision: A stretch of paving will cost Rs3,38,574, and work on a wall will cost Rs4,99,867.
Ahmedabad’s bid to rescue its old city has not gone entirely smoothly. Nayak will not speak about it himself, but people around him affirm that the city’s real estate barons, denied the opportunity to buy old structures and build in their stead, slowed the process down. “People are still selling their havelis, and builders are still buying,” shrugs R.J. Vasavada, head of the Centre for Conservation Studies at CEPT University and a member of HCC.
Right next to Mehta’s house in the old city’s pocket of Khadia, for instance, is a ghastly box of apartments in pistachio-green, built over the corpse of an old haveli. The building is very obviously new, built well after the heritage regulations were passed in 2007; Mehta will only say of his new neighbours, ambiguously, that people with “influence can do what they want”. Ghosh, who now chairs HCC and has an unbridled enthusiasm for architecture, also admits that buildings are still slipping through AMC’s net.
Activist and adviser to Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Debashish Nayak (extreme left), speaks during a Heritage Walk in the city in April. AFP
At the core of the problems that HCC faces—and the reason that heritage property continues to be sold—is what Ghosh sees as a dilemma. The heritage of a building is a public value, so how does a city maintain public value at private cost? “If an owner wants to sell his building and he’ll get Rs49 lakh for it, and I have to ask him to pass up that money, maintain the building, and perhaps get a tax concession of some Rs6,000—why should he do it?” Ghosh asks rhetorically.
This dilemma has led to some compromises. Ghosh cites a case that HCC is still deliberating upon—a former dak bungalow that its owner wants to demolish. No decision has been made yet, Ghosh is at pains to explain. “But we may reason that there are many such bungalows, and that permission may be given for this one,” he says.
The most common petitions are for change-of-use—to convert a haveli into a guest house, for instance, or to set up a restaurant in its courtyard. These are usually granted, Vasavada says, if they are “sympathetic to the character of the neighbourhood”.
While HCC’s mandate is clear, Ghosh says it has been given no punitive powers, so he and his fellow committee members must make it attractive for property owners to approach them. One policy under discussion, and often used outside India, involves “air rights”—a haveli owner’s theoretical ownership of the unbuilt storeys above his property, ownership that he might capitalize upon by selling out to a real estate developer.
Some cities—Philadelphia and San Francisco among them—enable owners of historic buildings to sell their air rights, but to be developed on a second site. This Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) thus allows owners to profit from the value of their property, but without having to tear their building down to do so. “A TDR policy has been framed but not finalized,” Ghosh says. Such a creation, he wryly adds, would be primed for corruption. “We’d have to do a lot of firefighting to make sure it isn’t misused.”
What HCC has to accept, Ghosh and Vasavada point out, is that owners can do what they want with the innards of their buildings. (Mehta removed the single, antiquated toilet and put modern bathrooms on each of his three floors. “I have to live here, after all,” he rightly explained.) The innards are private property, and the state cannot intervene there. “But the façade of a house is its public face,” Vasavada says. “It contributes to the character of the settlement.”
This is why HCC is keen to think harder about the “character of the settlement” than about simply restoring a façade and moving on, as Nayak’s work is sometimes described. This process is, necessarily, an involved one. “We’re still trying to develop a discourse among ourselves,” Vasavada says. “One can’t be romantic about this. This is a living city, not a museum. We can’t think in terms of freezing history.”
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First Published: Tue, Jul 13 2010. 05 56 AM IST