Kolkata: Extraordinarily proud of its history and the heritage of its encounters with colonisers and the Empire, West Bengal has been insensibly passive about protecting the buildings and spaces that marked its exceptional past. At stake are hundreds of buildings and spaces in Kolkata and along the river front — including the settlements of early European traders from Holland, France, Portugal, Denmark and briefly Germany — and even further up river up to Murshidabad.
The quest for a formula or a plan to restore Kolkata’s erstwhile glory has proved remarkably elusive in the past, many believe that it could end with winning UNESCO’s cachet of a world heritage site of outstanding universal value. To halt the irretrievable loss of the “multicultural heritage” on the Hooghly river front, with Kolkata at its core and the periphery shifting between Bandel to the North or Murshidabad further up river, UNESCO, the West Bengal government, Indian Heritage Cities Network with the support of a remarkably diverse group of international and national actors came together over two days to create an action plan for conservation-led regeneration.
If the city could capitalise on its past, it could transform the “dormant potential” that exists in its connection to the Hooghly riverfront, however complex and difficult the process. There is more cultural heritage in Kolkata and along the river than in the entire United States of America as Philip Davies, the expert roped in by UNESCO for the workshop, said. To convert the potential into the actual, pilot projects are needed to demonstrate how it can be done, the workshop participants recommended. It would have to be an ambition shared by the grass roots as well as the political leadership, prone to change as part of the democratic process. A strategy backed by a master plan that could be implemented in phases with each stage opening up further opportunities had worked in other water front cities and could be made to work for Kolkata and the Hooghly river front.
For Moe Chiba, UNESCO’s programme specialist for culture, the change in attitude would have to be backed by demonstration of intent that could be through small scale pilot projects for changing the Hooghly river front to put it on track for eventual listing as a cultural landscape of Outstanding Universal Value. The diverse stakeholders , including the West Bengal government, Kolkata Port Trust, Indian Railways, diplomats and experts from Europe and the Archeological Survey of India who participated in the workshop shared experiences of transformation in other locations as a way of indicating how change and regeneration can succeed.
From past experience, some participants indicated, heritage had been perceived as an obstruction and a problem instead of an asset, despite the remarkably unanimous view shared by almost all, including the ordinary citizen that the river is “exceptional, because it is the Hooghly” and “marks the confluence of cultures.” Buildings had been torn down and spaces encroached to make Kolkata and other towns along the river flag bearers of the modern.
The city’s extraordinary Town Hall was rescued by civil society activism, but the State Bank of India, as the successor to the Imperial Bank, pulled down the old building and constructed a modern hybrid on the Strand in much the same way of the McKinnon building. Kolkata’s pride in its history could not prevent the destruction of the famous stucco and Grecian column Senate Hall of Calcutta University to make way for the “modern” and unaesthetic Centenary Buiding.
Heritage along with urban development
As a tentative first step to introducing conservation zones in Kolkata and along the river front, Debashish Sen, principal secretary urban development, West Bengal government announced the extension of the boundary defining the river front to five kilometers from the east and west banks. By effectively enlarging the space for conservation and regeneration by “marrying heritage with urban development,” the state government sent out a positive signal that the “frustrating” era of “no decisive action” had ended. The government has been working for decades on developing Kolkata’s heritage, starting from the city’s 300th anniversary in 1989 to setting up the West Bengal Heritage Commission by legislation2001 and using Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission funds to conserve the city’s past and that of other towns along the river, Sen explained. The new regulations would ease conservation and regeneration, because it was grounded in the idea that “heritage must pay for itself,” as Atri Banerjee, principal secretary of West Bengal’s Information and Culture, said.
It prompted Aman Nath, the man who transformed the derelict Neemrana into a “unhotel hotel” to suggest that six buildings should be identified for adaptive reuse to demonstrate to policy and decision makers that it could be profitable. Other suggestions included removal of bill boards from heritage spaces and buildings, emergency repairs to dangerously derelict buildings such as the Superintendent’s residence in the Botanical Gardens and regenerating Asia’s first such garden as an alternative attraction.
Suiting action to intention, Badri Narayan, the Howrah divisional manager announced that as an initiative in sustainable transformation of heritage structures, Eastern Railways has begun work on restoring the dangerously derelict Salt Gola in Howrah. He was candid that the century-old Howrah Station building needed urgent adaptation that was aesthetic and functional, as the heritage structure handled over a million travellers every day. The workshop showcased the work of the restoration of the waterfront at Chandernagore and the Institut de Chandenagor, the restoration and conservation led by the National Museum of Denmark at Serampore and the collaboration between the Dutch government and West Bengal for the restoration of colonial built heritage. The gradual transformation of the riverfront in Kolkata from a neglected and derelict space to an area with multiple uses with the restoration of Princep Ghat, the Gwalior monument and the creation of the Millennium Park was highlighted as a very small beginning.
The changes that have taken place are like “pickled walnuts,” selectively undertaken, whereas the need is for a landscape size master plan that would be implemented in phases and over decades. Changes to laws, rules and regulations, negotiations between existing users of buildings and spaces and plans that may require relocation and rehabilitation of large populations would be a complex and difficult process, especially as the speed of India’s urbanisation added to the difficulties of planning and implementation. Heritage plans would have to dove-tailed with land use plans, the Kolkata Port Trust said. It warned that certain types of economic activity could not be disturbed even if these were in conflict with a future master plan for the riverfront’s regeneration. The warehouses on the Strand that were an eyesore and underused, since the original purpose for their construction no longer existed could not be easily switched to other uses, as ownership and user rights were entangled in legal problems, KPT warned.
Coordinated planning needed
Kolkata’s regeneration as part of a larger cultural landscape of outstanding value would need coordinated strategising and planning and action at various levels of government. It would demand a change in the style and quality of governance at the municipality, corporation and government levels. Taxes and incentives would have to be reworked to encourage conservation. Businesses, especially real estate developers would have to think differently, postponing short-term gratification for long-term value. The restoration and regeneration of Regent’s Park in London had taken 50 years of painstaking effort and this had paid off with spectacular outcomes. It is now one of the world’s most expensive real estate spaces.
If Kolkata could regenerate itself as a world-class cultural heritage landscape it could restore the glory it once had and so ardently desires. To do so, Kolkata would have to revise its opinion of itself as the only unique location and prepare itself to share the honours with smaller towns and locations. Communities and interests that have traditionally worked at cross purposes would have to give up their singular quirks, end perpetual argument over jurisdiction and surrender to a single and unified management, a recommendation made by Shikha Jain, whose dogged persistence has succeeded in enlisting the hill forts of Rajasthan, the Western Ghats and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, among others. Given Kolkata’s record for jealously guarded singularity, abandoning its pride to achieve a greater good may be the most difficult part of the quest for revitalising its future.