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Save Calcutta's architectural inheritance

Save Calcutta's architectural inheritance
  
  

 


Why this is important

Calcutta in eastern India is one of the great cities of modernity and Asia’s first cosmopolitan metropolis. Sadly, its rich architectural heritage is in real danger today, with historic buildings of great distinctiveness getting torn down rapidly. But a movement to save the city’s architectural inheritance has begun, so join now!

A group of us, including many prominent citizens like Nobel prize-winner Dr. Amartya Sen, are uniting to ask the government to develop an action plan to save Calcutta’s architectural inheritance for future generations.

If thousands of you join us, we can get the government’s attention and save this great city’s spaces and buildings, which are so essential to urban revival. Sign now and share this with everyone you know who has a connection to Calcutta or, indeed, with this issue.

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Below is the text of the letter sent to the government and the letter of support from Dr. Amartya Sen.

To The Chief Minister,Government of West Bengal
Cc: The Mayor, Kolkata
The Commissioner, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation
The Chief Secretary, West Bengal
The Secretary, Information and Cultural Affairs

Calcutta is one of the great cities of modernity, and Asia’s first cosmopolitan metropolis. Like other great modern cities, its cultural inheritance is contained not only in its literature, cinema, art, and music, or in its political and intellectual history, but palpably in its lived spaces and its architectural ethos. This ethos is remarkably distinctive, and unique to Calcutta; it includes not only the rajbari mansions of north Calcutta and the grand colonial institutional buildings of central Calcutta, but the houses in which people have lived, and still live, in various neighbourhoods in the city – Bakulbagan, Hindustan Park, Kidderpore, Paddapukur Road, Bhowanipore,Sarat Bose Road, and GangulyBagan, to name just a few. These and others areas should really be declared heritage precincts. As Esther Duflo, Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology has said, Calcutta neighbourhoods should be showcased to the world in the same way that Prague and other great cities showcase their architecture. The first reason for this is the vivid way in which the history of a unique Bengali modernity is represented by Calcutta’s buildings from the last century to the 1950s. The second reason is that, as Prof Duflo points, these buildings and precincts are the very things that will attract the international visitor to the city.

But these houses are being torn down today at such an incredibly rapid pace and so indiscriminately – principally for the land on which they stand - that there is an urgent need to introduce measures preventing such destruction. Such measures would not be unique to Calcutta; all major cities worldwide, whether in Europe (Berlin, London, Paris), Latin America, or North America, have laws that forbid the destruction of existing buildings. Nor would they necessarily oppose new developments; such developments can and will take place in areas that can accommodate them, as Calcutta expands. Moreover, a home owner has a fundamental right to sell their property; but neither buyer nor seller should, ideally, have the right to demolish existing buildings, since these add up to a city’s collective inheritance and history. While there is a process in place to do with changing the name of a street, which acknowledges the right that people have to object to the name-change, there are no real guidelines to, and hardly any accountability regarding, demolition, and it appears that the character of the neighbourhood or para can be destroyed with impunity. Measures protecting not just heritage but both the cultural individuality and the multifariousness of the city as represented by its architecture are now long overdue in Calcutta; their introduction would show an unprecedented commitment to re-engage with this great city’s identity and history. We believe that such an act of commitment is now unavoidable. There are some immediate measures that the government should adopt without delay.
  • The West Bengal Heritage Commission and the KMC Heritage Committee unfortunately lack teeth. They should be empowered so that they can make urgent, tangible contributions, and also encouraged to work in consonance with each other.
  • The list of heritage buildings should be urgently and substantially extended.
  • Various neighbourhoods should be declared heritage zones or precincts, and criteria should be swiftly established for doing so.
  • In this context, one of the most practical solutions towards protection would be the one suggested by the architect Partha Ranjan Das: to introduce Transfer of Development Rights, whereby owners of buildings are allowed to sell the equivalent of land value to ‘developers’, who can then use those rights to extend new properties being built elsewhere. In this way, the great buildings and neighbourhoods will continue to survive. Moreover, Transfer of Development Rights costs the government nothing, and, in fact, will earn it considerable revenue. We urge the government to see this not as a marginal issue, but as one that’s central to the city’s history and to its future, and to act without delay.

    Yours sincerely,
    Amit Chaudhuri, novelist and Professor of Contemporary Literature, University of East Anglia and, in alphabetical order,
    Pranab Bardhan, Professor of Graduate School, Department of Economics, University of California at Berkeley
    Kaushik Basu, Chief Economist, World Bank, and Professor of Economics and C Marks Professor, Cornell University
    Sugata Bose MP, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, Harvard University
    Jogen Chowdhury, MP, artist
    Partha Ranjan Das, architect
    Esther Duflo, Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Bonani Kakkar, President, People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC)
    G.M.Kapur, State Convenor, The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)
    Anuradha Lohia, Professor of Biochemistry, Bose Institute, and Vice Chancellor, Presidency University
    Chittrovanu Majumdar, artist
    Aparna Sen, film director
    Sujata Sen, member, West Bengal Heritage Commission
    Dayanita Singh, photographer
    Jawhar Sircar, Director, Prasar Bharati

    Text of the letter of support from Prof. Amartya Sen.

    Dear Amit,

    Thank you for sending me a copy of your excellent joint letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal on the need to protect the architectural legacy of our beloved city. As you know I do not sign collective letters, but what you say here is so well-reasoned and so important, that I would have certainly added my signature to the letter had I not been bound to my self-imposed abstinence.

    The architectural heritage of the region in which Calcutta is located goes back more than two thousand years - even Ptolemy, the pioneering geographer, wrote about the old settlement around what is now Calcutta. The rich history of early habitation in the Calcutta region has suffered not only from intellectual neglect, but also from the destructive tendencies of our past (only glimpses have survived in the literature, for example in the pages of the Mangalkavyas). As your letter brings out, the richly original and deeply engaging buildings of the past two or three hundred years in Calcutta are threatened with demolition - those that have not been destroyed already. This has to stop, and I am glad that your letter even points to specific suggestions of policies that would enhance preservation of the city's splendid edifices. I hope our joint plea will receive the listening it deserves - and the action we demand.

    I am writing this letter from the campus of Stanford University which I am visiting for a week to write a joint paper with Kenneth Arrow on "what we owe to the future generations." This is a largely technical paper in economics, but I am struck by a coincidence here. I cannot but feel that the general topic of the joint paper that I am writing with Arrow is very close to the particular subject of your joint letter. We do owe to the future generations a preserved and unmutilated heritage of Calcutta's eccentric but exciting old buildings. I hope we succeed in bequeathing to people in the future the opportunity of enjoying Calcutta's enthralling architectural inheritance.

    My thanks to you for your initiative in trying to be fair to our splendid city.

    Yours ever,
    Amartya

    Posted July 1, 2015
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