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Sunil Sethi: Saving your city could save your life


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Mumbai: A few days ago, Sharada Dwivedi, the remarkable and indefatigable historian and restorer of Mumbai's heritage, took me on a walk through Victoria Terminus, the city's mightiest landmark. VT, as everyone knows it, is among the greatest railway stations of the world""on a par with King's Cross St Pancras in London, the Gare du Nord in Paris, Grand Central Station in New York or Tokyo Central in Japan.
A million passengers, suburban and inter-state, pass through VT's hallowed portals everyday. Dwivedi, a brisk, middle-aged woman who now heads a one-woman publishing company to produce high-quality and saleable books about her projects, spoke to me about saving Mumbai's heritage with the passion of a religious fundamentalist: "To start with, our aim is to save and restore every building in Mumbai's Heritage Mile, from Kala Ghoda to the Gateway of India. This includes Watson's Hotel, the origin of the film industry, where the Lumiere brothers showed the first moving pictures in India in 1896. We want to restore a part of this great city to its glory. I went to see Ratan Tata to ask for funding for a book about Bombay's maritime history in collaboration with the Indian Navy. Without hesitation he wrote a cheque. 'It is the history of our city,' he said. 'It must be recorded.'"
If left to Mumbai's notorious municipality and corrupt politicians, the example of VT's 19th century Indo-Gothic architecture""with its soaring dome, stained glass windows, cantilevered staircase, superb external carvings of Indian fauna and city fathers carved in rare stones mined in Maharashtra and Gujarat""would have been destroyed. Instead, thanks to people like Dwivedi, conservation architects like Rahul Mehrotra (who happens to be Charles Correa's son-in-law) and Abha Narain Lambha, the Tatas and, not least of all, to the Indian Railways, eager to preserve their own history, it has now won a badge of honour as one of Unesco's 26 World Heritage listed sites in India.
It is not easy to get on to the Unesco World Heritage list. An international committee decides, in accordance with exacting standards prescribed for each site, and a country can only nominate a single site every year. If alterations are made to the site, a red alert is sounded, like an Interpol alert, and the site is dropped.
This nearly happened to the archaeological ruins at Vijayanagar at Hampi, when the local government built two bridges across the river Tungabhadra. But local sentiments and international prevailed. The bridges remain incomplete and Hampi is off the red alert. It is an indicator of what is happening in Delhi, where conservation is in a mess.
Only two sites in the Capital are on the World Heritage list, the Qutab-Mehrauli and Humayun's Tomb areas. The Red Fort-Jama Masjid-Chandni Chowk trio has been battling for the badge but it can't make it because Unesco standards insist that the Red Fort must have a clear buffer zone. Too many nasties are involved in this cramped inner-city area: the army, for one, which was chucked out of the Red Fort after a court battle. But low-minded MPs, MLAs and Wakf Board members fighting for Hindu-Muslim vote banks continue to squabble in the spaces around the Fort.
Far worse is the battle for Humayun's Tomb, where the city government has proposed a Rs 800-crore, 2.4-km Jumna bridge with multiple under- and over-passes to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which will effectively destroy the precincts of historical Purana Qila, Nizamuddin, Delhi Zoo, Sundar Nursery, Lodi Gardens and Safdarjung Tomb. At the 16-member Delhi Urban Arts Commission meeting on May 22, chaired by Charles Correa, and the minutes of which were emailed to me, there were loud protests from every quarter.
Is Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit tuned in? It is rumoured that the Commonwealth Games 2010 in Delhi are her spur to win the next election. Even if she loses the election she wants the mantle passed on to her son East Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit. If this is how the cookie crumbles, all citizens must join the battle to oppose politicians' narrow ends to save their cities""and themselves.

First Published: Sat, June 02 2007. 00:00 IST