As Ahmedabad vies for the UNESCO World Heritage City status this year, city builders and heritage conservation experts lament that the implementation of attractive landmark policies of living among heritage remains plagued by roadblocks and “lack of political will”. The walled city of Ahmedabad is spread over 5.43 sq km with a population of 3.75 to 4 lakh. Its heritage includes the 600 odd “pols” or neighbourhoods with cluster of residences that date back centuries.
The heritage movement in Ahmedabad has chalked up several “policy milestones” over the years. It all began as a small step, with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) making a dedicated “heritage cell” in 1996. It launched its first heritage walk in November 1997. Subsequently, it implemented by-laws in the General Development Control Regulations (GDCR), prohibiting listed heritage property from being pulled down without permission.
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In a “major incentive” in 2013, Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) incorporated a TDR policy in which owners of 1,100 odd heritage properties could sell, transfer or lease out additional Floor Space Index (FSI) to developers in the form of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) that can be utilised anywhere in the city. Deputy GM of AMC’s Heritage Cell, P K Vasudevan Nair, says, “This was done to bring in more financing for conservation of heritage structure as heritage management needs to be sustained and linked to economic activity. Later, the state tourism department’s homestay policy also helped augment this. Even UNESCO had appreciated the TDR policy in the dossier submitted to the committee as unique.”
As per AMC, around 70 % of the 2,236 listed heritage buildings notified as heritage properties have people residing in them or are still in use while around 12 have been restored and five are functioning as homestays.
Hotelier Abhay Mangaldas, who runs five of such heritage properties, including a restored boutique hotel, says, “My experience in restoration of heritage has been a solitary one, full of many obstacles, with the only silver lining being the TDR policy. At the policy level, progress is there, but sometimes there is very little value for a third party to purchase a heritage property because of multiple owners, which is a social issue. This has led to many buildings lying in a derelict state as it has issues of owners and tenants who may not want to restore such building.”
Builder-turned-conservation expert Rajiv Patel, who co-founded City Heritage Centre, an NGO promoted by a group of entreprenuers that provides technical help for heritage properties, says that despite right policies, investors were staying away as there was lack of political will needed to bring investments in heritage conservation. Patel, who has restored three havelis in the walled city, says, “In the last 10 years, more than Rs 10 crore have been pumped into restoration of properties, one of which is a homestay and now it is backed by the TDR policy. We are now looking to rope in corporates to invest in conservation efforts via CSR and create new models for investment. Ahmedabad is yet to develop as a tourist destination, so maybe the world heritage nomination can help speed up the process and bring investments. But the impact of this will have to be advocated and efforts will have to be scaled up.”
From restoration to a sustainable homestay today, Jagdip Mehta’s 200-year-old haveli in Moto Sutharwado pol at Khadia was the first applicant under the state’s ‘homestay policy”. Mehta’s property was also able to get a subsidised loan from HUDCO for restoration in 2005. He claims to have a “happy experience” in living with heritage. “From then to now, I have had 17,000 visitors and a daily visitor count of 20-25. My family of 8 people makes sure visitors get to know the authentic ‘pol’ culture and sensitise them about everything, from prayers to traditions,” says Mehta.