No country for heritage buildings

Ahmed Shatil Alam finds out the reasons behind the disappearance of heritage buildings and sites from Dhaka

62 63 64 65 group panoramaThe news of demolition or partial-destruction of heritage sites or buildings from the Mughal and British era are very common in Dhaka. Around the second week of February this year, a news broke out that a Mughal era building, located in Shayesta Khan Road and barely few feet away from Dhaka’s signature heritage site Lalbagh Fort, has partially demolished by it’s owner- with an aim to erect a new building there.

The demolition activities was stopped later when the news broke out and the heritage building conservation activists started to demonstrate. But the exclusively identical building is now standing with a partially damaged structure.

Just a month before, in January, similar news also came out in the media that a 300-years-old mosque in Azimpur was demolished as the mosque committee wanted to erect a new mosque building in its place.

Following a visit to the building at Shayesta Khan road, New Age Xtra found that the roof and staircase of the building has been demolished. But some outer windows and doors made with lime-masonry still remains. The building was built nearly 300 years ago.

According to Urban Study Group, a Dhaka based heritage conservation activist group, in Dhaka around 3,000 buildings or sites are still surviving, which were either built during the Mughal or British era. After several visits, New Age Xtra found that most of them were either demolished or partially destroyed. During the visits, the signature heritage sites as Lalbagh fort, Satgambuj Masjid etc. – which have been declared protected by the Department of Archaeology, were also found in bad shape. With the visits it was found that the historic Satgambuj Masjid and an unknown tomb at Mohammadpur, built during the Shayesta Khan era, have been eclipsed by unauthorised structures.

Similar scenarios were witnessed around the historic Lalbagh Fort, Chhoto Katara, Bara Katara, the Eidgah in Satmasjid Road, Nimtali Deuri, Tara Masjid, Hussaini Dalan, Ahsan Manzil, Raja Rammohan Library at Patuatuli, Brahmasamaj Mandir at Patuatuli, Baldha Garden and other heritage structures and sites. Heritage buildings at Shakharibazaar, Tantibazaar and Pannitala are also facing demolitions to make space for new structures since the three localities were declared ‘heritage areas’ in 2009 by a gazette notification made by government.


Encroached or demolished

During recent visits, New Age Xtra also found unmistakable signs of encroachments on heritage buildings and sites. A seven-storey building has already been constructed by demolishing a beautiful heritage building of the Mughal era at 54 Shankhari Bazaar. Similarly unauthorised construction activities were also seen at Hemanta Das Road and Pari Das Road in Sutrapur, Rishi Kesh Das Road, Rebati Mohon Das Road, BK Das road and Farshganj Road.

The survey of USG says, some 40 buildings and group of buildings built during mostly Mughal and British eras and declared ‘protected’ by government authorities were demolished, partially demolished and defaced over the last few years.

Among the buildings or the sites, some were declared protected through the gazette notification, issued on February 12, 2009 and made on a list of 93 heritage sites, buildings and four individual areas. The list, which was prepared by Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), also includes 13 streets or roads and all the buildings and open spaces under the four areas in Dhaka like Farashganj, Shakhari Bazaar, Sutrapur and Ramna.

Among the buildings and areas that are declared protected- Shankhanidhi Lodge and Radha-Krishna Temple located at 38, Tipu Sultan Road were constructed in 1920. These were knocked down in December of 2011 by a local influential person named Ashraf Ali. On that matter, the High Court on February 19 asked the authorities concerned why their failure of preserving two archeological structures like ‘Shankhanidhi Lodge’ and ‘Radha-Krishna Temple’ should not be declared illegal.

In response to a writ petition, the court also asked the government to restore the temple to its original condition and recover compensation from the person responsible for the demolition. The writ was filed by USG chief executive Taimur Islam.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Taimur also says that the archaeology department declared four of the buildings the two brothers made on Tipu Sultan Road ‘preserved sites’ in 1989. However, all of those have been demolished due to inaction of the authorities concerned.

Some other protected buildings and group of buildings as Choto Katra, House 15 of Boro Katra Lane, house 8, 39, 109, 112/2 and 122/3 of Rishikesh Das Lane, 15/3 Farashganj Road, house no 67, 68, 75/1, 76 and 78 in Tanti Bazaar Road were either demolished or defaced. And in some of these plots, new buildings were also erected over the last few years.

The demolished and defaced buildings, yet to be declared protected by any of the government authorities, are- Hinga Bibi Mosque of Armanitola, Mongolabash, Shikh Gurudwara at Shirish Das lane in Bangla Bazaar, Daroga Bari of Armanitola, plot no 9, 20 and 34 at Kalicharan Saha street, plot 34, 36 and 37 of Hatkhola road in Tikatuli, plot 62 and 62/1 of Agah Massih Lane, plot 39/2 of Panch Bhaai Ghat Lane, Laxmibazaar and etc.

bk das road _ streetscape

No guardian

According to the experts and heritage conservationists, the lack of coordination between the government authorities is the main reason behind the demolition of these buildings over the years. ‘All the authorities are just reluctant to save these heritage buildings,’ says Professor Akter Mahmud from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning of Jahangirnagar University.

He also says that there seems to be no coordination between authorities like Department of Archaeology (DOA)-the core authority to protect heritage buildings and sites, Rajuk and Dhaka South City Corporation. ‘We do not see any specific list of protected buildings and sites from these three organisations,’ he says.

Taking the instance of the building at Shayesta Khan Road, Taimur says, Authorities failed to do their duty although this building fell within the protected zone as per the Dhaka Metropolitan Building Rules 2008.

According to media reports, the Rajuk list also declared Farashganj area and it’s buildings and streets as ‘protected’, but Dhaka South City Corporation listed a building called Bara Bari as ‘risky’. In a follow-up, the DSCC sent the building owner a letter to demolish the building.

According to Taimur, the demolition process was intensified whenever there were incidents of political unrest. ‘During November 2013 to February of 2014, when a mass political unrest was going on all over the country, at least 33 Mughal and British era structures in Old Dhaka were demolished as none of the authorities concerned took the responsibility to preserve them,’ he says.

He says that in 2004, a building in Shakahari Bazaar collapsed and left around 17 people killed. Since then government authorities have had this tendency to shed negative light on heritage buildings in a bid to knock them down later. Taimur hints that this incident was the precursor to demolitions of other heritage buildings in the years to come. He also adds that the buildings made with lime-masonry are much better than concrete-cement made buildings in terms of fighting against earthquake.

Conservationists and building owners tell New Age Xtra that to demolish or deface a building, at first a small portion of a building- as terracotta, some artistic structures, doors, balconies are initially broken. Later, the demolition spreads to other parts of the building.


TDR, a new hope

Experts also suggested speedy introduction of the concept of TDR (Transfer of Development Right) to compensate the private owners of the listed or non-listed heritage properties and persuade them to cooperate with the conservation move. The TDR system has been in practice in India and Hong Kong in Asian region.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) is a zoning technique used to permanently protect farmland and other natural and cultural resources by redirecting development that would otherwise occur on these resource lands to areas planned to accommodate growth and development. Under TDR, the building owners will get a certificate by means of TDR and will be able to sell it in certain areas allowing construction of building floors beyond existing ceiling.

In this regard, both Taimur and Akter Mahmud said that in the current situation, TDR would be a very effective way to save the buildings and at the same time it will help the building owners. ‘It is natural that a heritage building owner of old Dhaka will be interested to erect a multi-storied building instead of keeping the old building to get more financial benefits. TDR in this case will help them to get financial benefits while also ensure that the heritage building is saved,’ explains Taimur.

Akter Mahmud says that in order to implement TDR, government has to start with an alley or groups of buildings, otherwise actual outcome will not be seen. ‘We need to protect a group of buildings, otherwise the aesthetical value of the area will not be proven,’ he says.

DOA director general Altaf Hossain tells New Age Xtra that the government plans to ban any structure within the 250 meter radius of any protected archeological site, according to a draft revision of the Antiquities Act of 1968. And the government wants to include TDR in the rules of the new act, whose draft is likely to be sent to the ministry after several revisions.

Hossain, however, brushed aside the allegations against his organisation while claiming that they are protecting sites and buildings listed as heritage sites by DOA. ‘We have been working on our listed sites and protecting these for years as per Antiquities Act,’ he says.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report published by New Age on March 20, the DSCC mayor Mohammad Sayeed Khokon said that they were in a dilemma over taking actions against century-old risky buildings at Lalkuthi, Shyambazar and other parts in the Old Town of Dhaka as the cultural affairs ministry wanted the structures to be preserved.

‘My priority, however, is the safety of the citizens,’ he said, requesting prime minister’s intervention on the issue. Sayeed Khokon suggested that immediate renovation of the buildings should be done to ensure safety, before other moves were taken to preserve historically significant establishments, as practiced in European cities.



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