Friday, January 11, 2008

Urban Conservation – Putting The Last First

House in North Calcutta.

In April 2000, I was invited to speak at the seminar on "Conservation after Legislation: Issues for Bombay", organised by the Urban Design Research Institute. Here is the paper I presented at the seminar. I am grateful to Devananda Chatterji, architect, and Manish Chakravarti, conservation architect, for their valuable contributions to my presentation.

I recalled this yesterday, and shared it with Manish in the context of a dialogue on strategic inititives in urban heritage conservation. I wrote to him:

It is somewhat dated, but still largely relevant. For instance, developments in the last 7 years or so have heralded a new city, leaving out the main city, even south Calcutta, with the bypass, the stretch from Rajarhat to Garia and beyond, condo complexes, malls and private vehicular transport coming to define the city. All infra investments are targetted in this belt, leaving long-neglected areas forever neglected, and converting not so neglected areas into now neglected zones.

The aesthetics dimension is also there, of no more houses, only apartment blocks; some expensive, fancy complexes like Ambuja, Hiland, Merlin, South City etc, with their style of "aesthetics"; but by and large small plots converted into apartments, with the ugliest of buildings replacing handsome houses.

Meanwhile, blighted areas continue, especially slums, without adequate infra; the shadow looms over them of large-scale eviction of basti dwellers, in one form or other, and the puttting out of basti lands into the (legal, large promoter-based) real estate sector. In places like Howrah, and also Jadavpur, complexes are coming up on the site of erstwhile factories; acute disparities coexist, breeding violent tension, waiting to erupt and explode in destruction and loot.

Democracy - in terms of transparency, accountibility, public interest and good governance - is the casualty.

I reproduce my paper here.

1. Sutanuti

North Calcutta, or the district historically known as Sutanuti, even today, despite its largely degraded and blighted character, is a gateway to a rooted awareness of refined urban living, in the personal and private domain as well as the public and communal. Aesthetics is writ large upon the whole environment. The distinctive architecture is a celebration of eclecticism. Local climate, quality of light, space, material, form and function are all woven together to create an engineered space that breeds human comfort, creative stimuli, fulfillment, leisure, social intercourse, cooperation, civics and enlightenment.

Great personalities in history, social reformers, bhaktas, freedom fighters have lived in this place.

But Sutanuti today is largely degraded and blighted. The beautiful buildings themselves are in a highly deteriorated condition. Their inner courtyards run into sewerage flooding. Drainage in the area as a whole is poor, and leads to flooding in the rainy seasons. This poses a grave threat to the physical survival of the structures themselves, and hence to the overall fabric of the locality.

Social services in general are over-stretched, as south Calcutta has come to dominate the life of the city. Wealthy and affluent families based in north Calcutta, would typically either acquire other properties in the south, or even move lock-stock-and-barrel.

What is to be done?

In such a context, conservation should be the preferred form of development and development has to be the preferred form of conservation.

The most crucial lack, is of a vision of a positive, thriving, ethos, capitalising upon the heritage resources. Only that vision could inspire a conviction that something can be done, and therefore the various other related technical tasks should be speedily attended to.

The biggest bang for buck, is in developing a positive vision, and in communicating this to large numbers of local people The inspiring vision should be one that can embrace any other vision of any other stakeholder, rather than negate it. It should be something that is without offence to anyone else’s civic claim.

So whose vision is it - this is crucial.

After envisioning, one is faced with the dirty problems like sewage flooding, which makes any vision crumble in the harsh heat of clear daylight. So the sense and situation of empowerment of the visionary is crucial. How empowered is this entity, to engage in infrastructural, financial and such matters? In a blighted and disempowered environment, such empowerment is rare. Such envisioning would therefore instead come from a more empowered milieu, but from someone who would claim that it is the heritage resources of the disempowered locale that have empowered them.

Visionary policy, legal, infrastructure and financial strategies are called for.

What could Sutanuti be: it could become a completely improved, highly attractive place to live, visit, shop, for recreation, a culture destination, with shops, museums, restaurants, cafes, art galleries, theaters, film halls, music and dance performances. Also expensive residential and office spaces for services-related enterprises. Basic fairness of property transfer has to be ensured, to bless the whole process. .

In the prevailing milieu, there is an inherent notion of the undesirability of commercial activities, in regard to old joint family owned properties. This calls for creative communication essentially, that uses a conservative attitude to promote a new breed of activity, which is commercial, but also simultaneously cultural and social.

The role of the Corporation would be to enable everything necessary to happen. This means appropriate tax and re-use regulations.

The ethic - honest conservation, honesty to circumstances, rather than authenticity. The curatorial issue is of interest to museum conservationists. But how can the buildings stand – that must be the compelling concern.

People must either become a profiting partner of a new regime or give way to it.

2. Metropolitan renewal

The conservation of Sutanuti may be seen in the perspective of renewing the blighted metropolis of Calcutta, of rebuilding this city in the spirit of the aesthetics and public values implicit in the historic quarter. We said the immediate conservation action in the district itself must be inspired by a discernment and appreciation of the valuable sensibility stamped upon the environment. The gift endowed to Calcutta, for its future, by her earlier generations, is this inspiration of a concretised vision of refined urban living.

Past and future are inextricably locked. So far this has been Calcutta’s curse. The challenge is to make it a blessing.

There are a number of very serious threats to the long term health and well-being of Calcutta. The city is sprawling eastwards over the sensitive wetlands (which are part of the Sundarban deltaic eco-system). For over a decade now, the impact of this has been felt on the city’s drainage system. Within the city, there are severe disparities and inequities in provision of civic services. Maintenance and development of service infrastructure is hostage to the free-riding and pillaging by the powerful and rich. Environmental health is consequently seriously threatened by water-borne and malarial diseases. Lack of access to adequate supplies of drinking water, which is compounded by inadequate sanitation – this is the principal environmental problem for Calcutta. Municipal statistics from Howrah suggest that infant mortality rates in slums are significantly higher than that in non-slum areas. A third of the metropolitan population lives in slum settlements, where the conditions are most degraded. In some areas, service latrines are used by over a hundred persons. The city as a whole becomes a zone of conflict and violence, between the haves and the have-nots, with the middle-classes getting it from both sides. The degraded and poverty-ridden slums of the city are like subterranean boiler-rooms producing crime and riots, which can make city life nightmarish.

Frontally addressing such larger, fundamental questions, with a view to humane transformation is the greatest act of homage to the city’s historic heritage. This can only help to protect the continued existence of the fabric woven out of the structures.

3. Canal-side renewal

Immediately adjoining the historic district is the Beliaghata canal-side area, that is today one of the most blighted, decrepit and foul environments. Large numbers of squatters live beside the canal, on its sides and over its bed. There are large congested, low-rise basti or slum pockets. A quiet process of illegal conversion goes on. There are closed, sick or obsolescent factories. Large tracts of vacant land. And a canal, that was once navigable is now dead, and a foul sewer.

The renewal of the canal-side area would directly be in the interest of conservation of Sutanuti. It would lead to the installation of infrastructure access points. It would demonstrate that a blighted area can indeed be transformed. And bring about a thriving residential, commercial, institutional, civic and cultural complex right next door, which would bring in powerful currents of change.

Flooding occurs because of the siltation of the canal and building upon the east Calcutta wetlands. In 1999 October, flooding reached peak levels and is likely to continue unless de-silting is undertaken from the Bidyadhari river to the inner city. The authorities say they are doing this, but given the presence of squatters along the canals and the apparent lack of land for their relocation, there will continue to be a problem. And if force is used to evict the squatters, and then the canal work is done, the basic social problem will remain. Experience has shown that they simply return after some time.

It is this very blight that affords the possibility of comprehensive area redevelopment, something that could integrate the aesthetic, environmental, social and commercial. In 1995, an independent, civic effort was initiated, through Unnayan, to develop a viable plan for the proper rehabilitation of the canal-side squatters. Eventually, this led to a blueprint for highly remunerative area renewal, involving revitalisation of the canal and navigation, and large-scale residential, commercial and institutional developments – which would also satisfactorily provide for squatter resettlement. Together with visionary and committed conservation-related regulations, such an area renewal focus and its infrastructural investment could also catalyse a major restoration process in Sutanuti. The proposal also enabled a bold new vision of Calcutta’s future as a bio-technic city, a powerful organism for the sustainable and bio-regionally appropriate development of city and hinterland in the riverine, deltaic southern Bengal.

Conservation should therefore also mean conservation of the natural features like the canal, whose health is vital to the long-term well-being of the city.

The canal nework of Calcutta stretches into the city’s hinterland, the lush green deltaic ecology of Sourh bengal which includes Sundarbans. A canal city was conceived of for a culturally vibrant populous lively city, a green tropical city with water, reflecting the articulate nature of its presently distressed people.

Broadbasing conservation - so that it becomes something reaching out to and touching the everyday life of ordinary people. Thus conservation related to urban activities : well-known shops and markets, open spaces, water-bodies, cafes, book shops, cinema halls, associations and Puja committees, trees (and hence place names), cemeteries, shrines, etc.

4. Building civic ownership from below

But something like this calls for an institutional ownership and capability that is currently non-existent. Nor has the civic consciousness of the citizens reached a stage of taking unequivocal and unassailable ownership for the future of the city – something that would then drive city planning and management.

The lack of public ownership of public domain concerns – that is the key limitation. Privatisation of the public domain is the character of the age, and to see that happening through an apparent public domain concern is terrible, with deep damage. Building such civic ownership – when formal authorities and institutions are riddled with incompetence, apathy and corruption – is the foundational infrastructural requirement.

The conservation domain is not now occupied by someone empowered, visionary and transparently public rather than private. It is time to move in this direction.

City and metropolitan renewal has thus perhaps necessarily to begin with community and slum renewal. Planning wisdom has to discern that empowering the vulnerable, for social and economic betterment, improved shelter and habitat, and building public ownership and cooperative action for environmental justice may be the foundation and catalyst for rebuilding the blighted city. Public ethics is the key to renewal.

Conservation has to get out of its ghetto by addressing the problems of ghettos.

Whose heritage? It is the duty of a conservationist to explore and discover the myriad unknown hidden sensibilities to place, manifested in humble shrines and other sites. All these offer powerful potential to connect people to place in a visionary forward movement. And these would tend to be in blighted unserviced areas, where the sensibility can be an important element in opening up a local renewal process. The sprouting points of renewal initiatives. This calls for transcendence from an elitist fixation with the city, which in the ultimate analysis is very limiting, and devoid of imagination.

In systemic terms, lack of awareness, disempowerment allows the free-riding and pillage, and this makes he city a fount of inefficiency, unreason, ugliness, all of which should be seen and felt to be as distasteful as they are. Hence, improvement in the lot of the disenfranchised should be in the direct long term interest of anyone wanting the city to be a thriving, well managed, efficient place.

Slum renewal begins the process of infrastructure upgradation and improved urban management – which conservation goals can only benefit from.

The action orientation has to be one of constituency building, building of alliances, for the future of city. Conservationists must seek to educate the others about aesthetics of built form, even as they learn the aesthetics of civics.

Public ethic, public domain activity – is a subject that needs to be looked at, and not assumed. Public issues are used instrumentally for private ends. Instead organisational means must be used instrumentally to serve public ends.

Photo: Achinto.

5. An initiative in Howrah

It is only the potential value of land under present depressed use that offers the resources to address the huge social development and infrastructure gap, in a capital-starved environment. But in the present climate, even this requires some initial economic growth which eludes the metropolis. In 1994, the Govt of West Bengal announced its new economic and industrial policy. But nothing substantial has materialised, simply because there is no land for industries proximate to Calcutta. Howrah, with its huge tracts of industrial land, presently under closed, sick and obsolescent industry, could provide the answer. And this could also afford the means to begin the long-term process of laying the much needed infrastructure.

The whole effort may be dedicated to the future of the children and the children of the future. For environmental health risk ultimately translates into infant mortality. Today in PM Basti, and the larger locality of Ramkrishnapur, in Howrah, Calcutta’s historical ‘other’, where large numbers of small children in slums die prematurely, such an effort at rebuilding the city from the bottom upwards is actually being made. Currently this is focused upon building Howrah Pilot Project, a grassroots organisation to be a capable vehicle of community awareness, cooperation and empowerment of the poor. In parallel, there is an advocacy and constituency-building effort for neighbourhood-level area improvement. This can catalyse attention to the basic problems of degradation, lack of adequate sanitation etc, as well as neighbourhood-level institution building. The effort in Priya Manna Basti is also sought to be replicated in slum neighbourhoods in other parts of Calcutta.


The well-being of Calcutta can be seen in the light of the highly polluted state of the river Hooghly, along whose two banks the metropolis lies. But the nearly extinct Hooghly dolphin, locally known as shushuk or shishumar, and mythologically identified as a protector of children, still finds cause to leap up from the polluted river. There may be hope yet for its cousins in the Brahmaputra, Karnali, Yamuna and Indus.

A rescued Ganges River Dolphin.

1 comment:

Deva said...

As far as profit making is concerned there is a problem of scale with old buildings since they cannot yield the enormous squarefootage that a modern housing or commercial complex can. Also, subdividing the generous internal spaces of older buildings into more affordable residential or commercial units would badly compromise the purpose of conservation.

In any case, the typical realtor is not the most imaginative or idealistic person and would prefer the tried, tested and easy way to make the crores, i.e. by selling maximum squarefootage, at best tarted up with upmarket finishes. There doesn't seem to be any simple solution to this.