'Individually, the architecture of the two precincts is outstanding'

Aug 12, 2013, 10:59 IST | Fiona Fernandez

In our final installment to give Mumbai's Victorian Gothic and Art Deco precincts a fitting platform for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, MiDDAY caught up with Richard A Engelhardt. The former UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific was in the city earlier this month as a mentor to advise on the proposed nomination. Excerpts

1) How did you get associated with this proposal?
I was requested to advise on the proposed nomination by Abha Narain Lambah, the consultant preparing the proposal, in my capacity as UNESCO World Heritage Mentor and in consideration of my familiarity with the historic precincts of Mumbai and their conservation.

2) What were your initial observations of this unique architectural mix?
I have long been an advocate of the nomination to the World Heritage List of the both the Victorian and Art Deco precincts of Mumbai. Individually, the architecture of the two precincts is outstanding each in its own right. However, it is the dialogue of the two architectural ensembles across the Oval Maidan that make them collectively of outstanding universal value -- and hence suitable for nomination to the World Heritage List -- as emblematic of the emergence and development of Mumbai as one of the world's great modern commercial cities.

3) Based on your visit to the site, what are Mumbai's chances in comparison with global competition?
There is no 'global competition' for inscription on the World Heritage List. Each nominated property is considered on it's own merits. The only limiting factor is that of timing, as the World Heritage Committee considers a maximum of 35 nominations per year. 

4) What will be some of the challenges that Mumbai's dossier is up against -- considering that this site represents living heritage in an urban centre of the city?
Inscribed World Heritage properties, in addition to possessing 'outstanding universal value', are expected to exhibit exemplary conservation and management '” so as to ensure that the outstanding universal value(s) for which they are inscribed can be maintained in the long run. Any living World Heritage site (and there are many city centers already inscribed on the World Heritage List) faces challenges of maintaining the authentic character and intact condition of its heritage in the face of development pressures '” such as road building, redevelopment of buildings, or incompatible new constructions '” which may threaten to dismember the heritage precinct or disguise the physical and non-physical attributes which constitute its heritage value.

It is for this reason that the World Heritage Committee insists that legal safeguards are in-place and implemented before inscribing any site on the World Heritage List. Mumbai is not alone in facing these challenges '” the city center of Paris, for example, is also inscribed on the World Heritage List and it too faces intense development pressures.

One of the advantages of inscription on the World Heritage List is that site managers are linked together in a network where information and experiences can be exchanged. This is the purpose of the World Heritage Convention '” to share global expertise in best practices in the conservation and management of our world's most valuable heritage properties.

5) Despite its rich culture and history, why, according to you, does India have such few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in comparison to other Asian countries like China and Japan?
There are three points to be made in answer to this question.

First of all, it is not true that India has comparatively few sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. India currently has 30 inscribed properties '“ one of the largest numbers of any country in the world. In Asia, only China has more. China has 45 inscribed sites while Japan has 17. Of course, it stands to reason that, over time, larger countries will have more inscribed sites, simply because of their territories are larger. Another factor is the number of years over which a State party (country) has been nominating sites. The European countries signed the World Heritage Convention early and therefore could start to nominate properties early, therefore countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and Germany all have more than 30 inscribed sites. However, as time goes on, and countries, which signed the Convention later, continue to nominate site, the numbers even out. Mexico, for example, now has 32 inscribed sites. Asian countries typically were late signers of the World Heritage Convention and, according to the statues of the Convention, a country cannot nominate a site until it has ratified or otherwise 'joined' the World Heritage Convention. India ratified the Convention in 1977, which is comparatively early for an Asian country '“ but not as early as some European countries. This is one of the reasons that India has more sites inscribed on the List than any other Asian country except China.

Secondly, it is important to be clear that it is not UNESCO that inscribes nominated properties to the World Heritage List. It is the World Heritage Committee consisting of 21 States Parties (countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention), elected on a rotating basis by the countries themselves, that makes the decision to inscribe sites. India is currently a member of the World Heritage Committee.

Thirdly, to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, a site must be nominated by the State Party (country) in which it is located. So, the number of properties in a country inscribed on the World Heritage List depends directly on the number of nominations submitted by a State Party. However, as I have said, inscription on the World Heritage List is not a competition between countries; there is no limit to the number of inscriptions on the List, only an administrative limit as to the number which the World Heritage Committee is able to review each year.

Richard A Engelhardt was UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific from 1994 to 2008. After retirement from UNESCO, Engelhardt continues to serve the conservation profession, as UNESCO World Heritage Mentor, as UNESCO Chair Professor of the Conservation and Management of Historic Towns and Urban Centers, and as consultant in cultural policy and heritage management to government. During his career, Prof. Engelhardt has received numerous honours and awards in recognition of his services in safeguarding the heritage of the Asia-Pacific and has been decorated by the governments of Cambodia, China, the Philippines, and Viet Nam. He has also been honoured by the Global Heritage Fund with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the conservation of the world's heritage.

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