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To save our living heritage


Urban development and heritage conservation make good business partners, says Minja Yang.

If we could use heritage-based activities, with the support of FICCI and CII, conservation could generate employment opportunities.


COEXISTENCE: Link conservation with development.

THE UNESCO World Heritage List has 800 natural heritage sites of which 300 are cities. Not a single Indian city is on the list. A rather worrisome thought, given the vast, rich reservoir of `heritage' we boast of — on the streets, in our homes, courtyards, people, palaces, museums, forts...

Urban development should use heritage as an ingenious solution to technical challenges. It is important to reconcile urban evolution with the realities of cultural uniqueness of each society. True social cohesion and cultural regeneration will happen only if heritage works as an asset to people.

Economic sustainability

A living heritage coexists with the present age. Adaptive reuse of crafts, traditions, built heritage to generate economic sustainability will stand in good stead for all "modern-isms" that are a reality now. If heritage is about the wonders of our culture, it has to be contextualised with people's livelihood, tourism and all other revenue sources. A quest to preserve heritage should not be seen as a contradiction with general aspirations towards development — a `living' heritage has this advantage. According to UNESCO Director (Delhi), Minja Yang, "it's an affirmation of a way of life. Valorising of the past to create a future. Culture is collective memory; we have to understand it to make qualitatively improve the lives of the majority. Infrastructural development in terms of improved housing, sewage, hygiene, access to water to improve the living environment is a part of heritage conservation concerns."

Bordeaux and Kochi have initiated discussions to converge a technical data bank, conduct exchange programmes and study tours to learn from each other. Vrindavan, a city along a river, can learn much from restoration efforts by similar cities along rivers in France. "As an inter-governmental body, UNESCO feels that there are many experiences from different parts of the world, including third world countries, that can be instrumental in helping local authorities into designing pro-active strategies based on the way of life of the population," she added. If we could use heritage-based activities, with the support of FICCI and CII, conservation could generate employment opportunities. "Jobs created through heritage are double the amount than jobs created through agriculture," Minja affirmed. If Puducherry's houses, Darjeeling's railroad, Jaipur's sidewalks could be used along these lines, it would serve the dual purpose — the past would live on into a lucrative future.

The rich-poor divide has been the bane of any major movement. "People feel heritage and culture are a luxury. By the time we reach that level of comfort, the entire incredible heritage will be gone. That's why UNESCO is constantly coaxing the government and local authorities to first understand the value of what you have and then plan around it. Though heritage is a non-renewable source, `living' heritage is a thriving force. But once you lose it, you've lost it all. Built heritage is a concern, we risk losing it because it's impossible, financially and economically to recreate later. Skilled artisans and labour are dying away unlike the crafts industry that survives because of its economic viability."

Infrastructure needs

India's diversity needs to be played on to by building infrastructure, conserving and promoting heritage. To boost this thought, Minja said, "UNESCO has launched the Heritage Passport with the idea to develop thematic itineraries, identifying small towns and villages. After travelling under difficult conditions on bumpy roads, having seen fantastic sites, tourists are forced to go back to the nearest district capital, to spend the night in rather sub-standard, expensive, hotels. We want to draw importance to the adaptive reuse of many havelis, forts, palaces, which are languishing and convert them into small boutique hotels. Four states, including Rajasthan, are partnering UNESCO on this."

UNESCO has created and endorsed a network of Indian Cities of Living Heritage, linking 20 cities through India. "It will serve as a secretariat to have a database for all `good' practices. Experiences in one corner of India are not known in another; we need to pool in information and make it available to all states. The Hampi Rural Heritage Management Authority is the first of its kind. Kochi has adopted its heritage bye-laws. There are various specialised public institutions that are dealing with heritage management. We need to look into their statutes and adapt their programmes to other parts of the country as well. Intellectual investments need to be shared."

"UNESCO can't make things happen. The local governments, city authorities, NGOs, university research groups need to find out what are the human, cultural, tangible and intangible resources of an area, mobilise a body, like the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, to take action. This is where the government needs to coordinate, support and link such groups."

Public awareness and information dissemination is vital. "To value what we have requires cross-fertilization of ideas and information. Heritage management needs to be a part of the curriculum. Real heritage should include how regular people lived, in mohallas and streets not just what the kings did, or the wars they fought," Minja said.

Tourism is a growing sector that should be viewed in an overall context of a development strategy. Not all tourists want to hop from one monument to another. They want to stop by, stroll, watch a craftsmen beat copper, buy bangles by the roadside, have coffee, listen to folk music, take in colours, smells, sights and sounds of the place.

Urban development and heritage conservation make good business partners. Minja is tireless in her work, she strives to spread the word, UNESCO's concerns and its effort to link living heritage cities to broaden and share a database, is bound for success.

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