Who will protect our monuments?

Fiona FernandezIt’s been five years since one was in the Capital. While the present trip has been centred on a seminar to take stock of the children’s publishing industry, the earlier visit was more of a leisurely escape.

Strolls through its culture-soaked precincts, green spaces and high-street fashion bazaars, getting lost in the bustle and din of old Delhi and off course, a day trip to Shah Jehan’s labour of love — The Taj Mahal.

While the expectations had reached sky-high levels and rightly so, one was appalled to notice the utter lack of crowd management and basic hygiene while approaching the big T. The entry fee was a paltry amount for Indian nationals (hence the mad rush), while non-Indians had to shell out much more.

The actual sight was heavenly, almost unreal-like. However, memories of one of the world’s most photographed monuments were blurred, by the scant respect for the upkeep of the structure and its surroundings. One recalls spotting a hand pump outside the outer gates leading to the Taj where visitors where washing their hands and feet before and after their visit to the monument. It was worse than an eyesore, a reminder of how we regard our ‘treasures’.

Cut to the present. Another eyesore that became Page 1 fodder was visuals of angry miscreants vandalising the Amar Jawan memorial, as part of the Azad Maidan riot that brought the city to a standstill in early August. It came across as a free-for-all, daring act that hurt every self-respecting Mumbaiite. Lives were lost, even as the city hoped for calm, and eventually, settled back to its daily routine. The memorial was restored to its glory on the eve of Independence Day: a slap on the face to those who brought disrespect to the immortal protector of law and order.

But what about the numerous other invaluable sights and structures within our city that face the threat of damage and disregard from all quarters? Be it the paan-stained corners and defaced inner and outer facades of the CST building that would make FW Stevens churn in his grave at Sewri Cemetery? Who will look after the surroundings of the Gateway of India that have become public lavatories for its visitors?

Then, there is the Flora Fountain that needs more than just a temporary face lift and safety from all kinds of unwarranted elements (read: hawkers, urchins, drug peddlers). These are three examples.

There are countless others than seem to be in dire need of protection and tighter security, to prevent damage and disrespect. While our museums, Art Deco cinemas and educational institutions have to a large extent, curbed this concern, it is the landmarks in public spaces that seem to be facing the brunt.

Civic sense has gone out of the window. One hopes that the powers that be address this – by going back to the drawing board and looking at ways and means to bring in tighter controls — create a single body, perhaps, to monitor our public heritage, engage the common man in dialogue and make him/her aware of our heritage using simple, participatory ways, and protecting what’s left of Mumbai’s fast-fading cultural landscape.

As one looks around, at the concerted efforts made by Delhi’s civic authorities, local bodies and smaller groups who have rallied around to safeguard their sights and structures is reason enough to agree that the Dilliwallahs have won this round. Fair and square.  

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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