Fiona Fernandez Column: Manila moment for Mumbai

I’ve never been to The Philippines. For many Indians, yours truly included, a mention of the country brings memories of expensive shoes, and more shoes, courtesy former First Lady, Imelda Marcos. Then, there are those grainy frames of its typhoon-hit countryside, or Manila’s infamous drug lords who become fodder in Hollywood flicks. At times, if you’re lucky while channel-surfing, the odd travel-meets-food show will introduce the viewer to the joys of Filipino cuisine — a heady mix of Spanish influences and local flavours.

But there’s much more — as we discovered while digging deeper into a story about an applause-worthy initiative spearheaded by its youth. After The Philippines was rocked by back-to-back natural disasters in 2013 — a typhoon and an earthquake, heritage experts, mentored by senior planners and architects, came together, and activated the local population to create a crowd-sourced heritage map that plotted all its important natural and man-made sites. The website went live in September, and now, this mini revolution to save its treasures, appears to be in safe hands.

The immediate need, the founders told us, was the lack of a one-stop archive that documented all of The Philippines’ treasures. Many came under serious threat after the twin disasters, and a concerned community wanted to salvage it. With the common man on its side, the project was able to identify unsung landmarks, forts, churches, heritage homes, cemeteries and other relevant sites. Interestingly, Manila’s youth, using social media, are at the forefront, mobilizing the rest about the country’s treasures, and the need to protect it from vested commercial interests. The map’s creators wanted to showcase these sites to the world. Tourism would be automatic beneficiary.

We were impressed. All of 2015, Mumbai’s heritage community didn’t have much to cheer about. From its two UNESCO sites to its other landmarks, they remain lost in grimy cityscape. There was no real attempt to propel these sites into the public eye. Apart from sporadic heritage walks and exhibitions (credit must be given to young minds who tried to open up previously uncharted areas) there was no comprehensive attempt to plot Mumbai’s dynamic and architecturally diverse heritage under one umbrella, or backing that it so richly deserves, especially since few urban Indian centres can boast of such a mix.

As we dust off the old, and look ahead, we need to take stock. For starters, why not have a crowd-funded Heritage Week, where public buildings are opened up, where our citizens, with special focus on children and the youth, are encouraged to step into these spaces? Remember the debacle with the Development Plan? Our city could also do with an authentic, expert-backed blueprint to ensure these sites are protected.

Small steps, for sure, but these can be the start of a larger movement. Mumbai could learn from Manila.

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to

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