Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 17, December 16-31, 2021

An urgent need to define Heritage

by The Editor

The recent exchanges between the judiciary and the executive as to what constitutes heritage opens an entire debate on what is sustainable and what is not. That this discussion has come about is by itself a good thing as we may hope for some clarity on what is the official policy to be as far as heritage is concerned. At the same time, given the tendency of those in power to dither forever on matters not concerned with votes, this debate may prolong, when in the meanwhile, a lot of heritage may just vanish in front of our eyes. There is no point in emerging with a heritage policy after all that is worth preserving has been done away with. Urgency is the need of the hour, but with clarity in thought and purpose. Our bureaucracy is not known for either of these talents. Taken together it may be an impossibility.

Last week, the Government of Tamil Nadu in a response to the High Court of Madras stated that while it had begun taking action on 38 of the latter’s 78 directions, there were others that require clarity. The most important of these is the directive to classify all temples, chariots, jewellery, sacred groves and artefacts over 100 years of age as ‘national monuments’. The State Government has responded giving certain difficulties in implementing this. The foremost among these is the fact that temples have traditionally been nuclei around which localities have developed. Declaring them as monuments would necessitate clearing 100 metres in all directions around these and that would mean extensive land acquisition problems and also displacing people.

While the Government’s concern is genuine enough, it must be pointed out here that this where some flexibility in thinking is needed. A blind ­following of the 100 m rule is just not feasible and considering that the ASI and the Government have singularly failed in implementing this in structures already declared ­national monuments, this excuse is not valid at all. On the other hand, the Government ought to look at how it can retain the heritage character of a neighbourhood of a national monument. Clearing such places of all trace of life is a western concept, one that is not at all applicable in an Indian context where heritage thrives as a living facet. It is necessary for the Government to consider the High Court’s directive from this point of view and also explain to the judges that the implementation will be with some modifications to suit ground reality. The same applies to the Government’s objection that if declared national monuments then commercial activities within premises would cease. It is necessary to keep these going even after assigning national monument status. The Government has to learn to be flexible – it cannot operate based on guidelines fixed in 1957. Much has changed since then in the world. Why, even monuments in Europe permit shopping establishments within, subject to stringent rules, and more importantly, implementation of these.

In all this wrangling, yet another truth has emerged – the Government had admitted that while the State Legislature passed a Heritage Act in 2012, the statutory rules for it were yet to be framed. That is after a delay of nine years (!!), nothing has happened as yet. It is a moot point as to when those will be finalised and whether any heritage will be left standing by then. It is also noteworthy to point out that the scope of discussion is yet to expand to include secular and public buildings. In the meanwhile, we can only live on in hope, and prayer.

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