On Saturday, the 600-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad was recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, making it the first Indian city to earn that tag. The old city or the walled city of Ahmedabad is spread across 5.35 sq km and is home to havelis, old markets, historic housing clusters and shrines.

There is much to celebrate about the UNESCO tag. For one, expanding the heritage conservation discourse to cities rather than monuments alone brings hope that more attention will be directed to the infrastructure problems faced by these cities. This is good news for many other historic Indian cities, such as Varanasi, Agra, Lucknow, Hyderabad or Madurai as well. “Heritage” is a highly contested word because what qualifies as heritage is born out of historical narratives, which are invariably also political narratives. Some heritage is made out to be more equal than others, some histories are firmly asserted and some are conveniently forgotten. Similarly, some heritage buildings are given a lot of importance and some are ignored, depending upon their political legacy. Therefore, a heritage city is more inclusive than monuments.

Beyond cheer

However, celebrations are not ends in themselves and accolades cannot replace planning and governance. Our historic cities face perpetual challenges – neglect of historic buildings, traffic congestion, water and sanitation crises and garbage management are just a few of these. So when we reclassify a city as a heritage or historical city, we need to think afresh about its governance and planning as well.

Conventionally, urban planning in India has either completely ignored the historical cities by demarcating them under the “laldora” areas (which excludes them from the jurisdiction of planning authorities) or government officials have used blanket bans or draconian procedures for the reconstruction of heritage buildings in historic cities. We do not have a tradition of conservation architects and government planners working together to design building codes suitable for historical areas of a city.

The heritage conservation discourse has to move out of the “listing and zoning” approach (where heritage buildings are marked in zones and identified for conservation efforts), which treats the heritage buildings as islands in the urban fabric rather than as an extension of the area it is situated in. We need to move towards the more rounded governance approach, in which a heritage building is not treated merely as a façade or carving but as an extension of the street-life and culture.

Heritage conservation does not mean beautification alone. If Mathura, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, lacks basic sanitation facilities and is lined by mounds of uncollected garbage, then what is the use of painting and re-painting its ghats or decorating the jharokhas! And should Ajmer, with 15% sewerage coverage, spend Rs 300 crores in making flyovers and multi-level car parks?

Fading glory

Similarly, Ahmedabad too – even as it celebrates its heritage tag – will have to shift its focus to its various problems. The much celebrated old city that has earned Ahmedabad this honour is now a shadow of its former self. Over the years, families have moved out of the old city in large numbers citing the crumbling infrastructure, expanding families and lack of modern amenities in their traditional neighbourhoods. How do you use cars in a part of the city that was never designed for vehicles? How does one retrofit a historic building to fit in an air-conditioner or a Western toilet without ruining its historic features? Under which conditions should the authorities allow the reconstruction of a historic building and who will monitor these?

In the absence of easy answers to these questions, residents have migrated to newer parts of the city, not because they do not value their heritage, but because the burden of keeping it alive cannot be solely theirs.

An iconic feature of Ahmedabad’s old city are the pols, which are gated housing clusters that would house entire communities. A traditional house in pol is typically a multi-storey house with a shaft to let in natural light or a small courtyard. Many of these pols today either lie vacant or have been rented out as warehouses or to poor migrants.

Using historical buildings as commercial warehouses can destroy the structural and architectural features of the building because of the resultant dead load. Renting properties to the people who do not have the same association with their historic values runs the risk of destroying its traditional fabric.

A governing regime that pro-actively identifies heritage values and preserves them must also be put in place – a regime that works with owners or tenants and gets them the right kind of technical expertise or financial aid needed for restoration and reconstruction. Preserving heritage values means preserving the life in buildings that wants to change with time. If we facilitate sensible change, then it will preserve what needs to be preserved. Only then will the UNESCO world heritage tag work positively for Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad's pols. Credit: Tarkik Patel/via Wikimedia Commons/Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0]

A friend generously invited us to his house in the historic city of Ahmedabad for the kite-flying festival in January. His was a colonial five-storey structure with a terrace of 200 sq ft, where about 30-40 people gather to fly kites (to whatever extent possible in that space) every year. Over the years, he has seen many of his neighbours moving out. But he continues to stay on and preserves the traditions that we aspire to. It is time we share his burden through collective efforts and through better planning and governance. The UNESCO world heritage tag is not only an opportunity for Ahmedabad but also for other historic cities in the country – let’s make the best use of it.

Dr Rutul Joshi teaches urban planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.