More than just a tag
Recent reports that Ahmedabad and Darjeeling's UNESCO heritage tags are under scrutiny due to poor upkeep, mismanagement and neglect, should act as a wake-up call for those in charge of maintaining its counterparts in Mumbai
We were probably on our third or fourth visit to Elephanta Island. After the scenic boat ride from the Gateway, where sea gulls and flamingoes gave us company, and where we tested our eyesight until the city's fading skyline was a blip in the horizon, the historic island's treasures — natural and manmade — beckoned. It had been a gap of a year since our previous visit. But the signs of neglect and vandalism had increased sufficiently for us to cringe within the first 100 metres of our walk. Plastic bags had got entangled along the few mangroves by the jetty. Litter in the form of tetrapaks and empty bottles were strewn along the toy train track. And graffiti greeted us everywhere, as if to remind us that couples had run out of space elsewhere to proclaim their love.
We shuddered to imagine what would be in store as we progressed to explore the island and its historic caves. In fact, after the 120-odd-step climb, we noticed a spike in the number of stalls and vendors along the way. The less said about the garbage and lack of bins to counter this, the better. The uncontrolled number of visitors to the UNESCO site and their irresponsible antics is something that we encountered all the way. How authorities continue to turn a blind eye to this burgeoning issue is something we've always been baffled about. And then there remains the insensitive restoration of structures within the site. It would require wide-ranging discussion in a separate column altogether.
Luckily, ours was a nature trail so we were lead on a path that wound around the outer eastern boundary of the cave site. Soon enough, the shouts and shrill cries of human voices (read: badly behaved tourists) were silenced. All we could hear were chirps and tweets from some of the island's avian inhabitants. Despite being close to high noon, the pitch of the December sun didn't scorch us during the walk that also took us though one of its villages. It was insightful as we broke bread with a few villagers. We learnt about how they coexisted with nature despite very few basic facilities (electricity has just reached the island) and the predicament of being a tourist attraction. While it gave the islanders employment, many felt a line had to be drawn to ensure the World Heritage Site was secure and protected. After all, the site is what brought the island worldwide fame. "Amcha khajeena aahe [it's our treasure]," they said, and rightly so. Somewhere, we felt a strange sense of relief, despite the eyesores that greeted us earlier. If the local population felt so strongly about the caves, it still had a chance of fighting the odds.
It is this factor that came to mind as we read two different sets of news about UNESCO tags being in danger — in newly-anointed Ahmedabad and the Darjeeling Railway. Both are high-profile sites that received political backing as well as evoked immense public sentiment. Yet, they seemed to have faulted along the way. The 88-km railway route had several red marks that were highlighted at UNESCO's World Heritage Committee report during its recently concluded 43rd session in Baku. It cited illegal constructions and waste along the track as being the chief culprits. Since its elevation in 1999, and extensions in 2004 and 2008, the railway was under threat and "ill-maintained," the committee observed.
With Ahmedabad, shocking news reports stated how prized buildings in the heritage precinct had been restored or made-over by its owners without being aware that they actually couldn't due to the WHS tag. As a result, invaluable architectural elements of the walled city have gone "missing", the report suggested. Shame, considering it has barely been two years since the tag was conferred on the city.
In both cases, strict monitoring and precise survey reports have been sought from the local authorities. This should serve as a warning bell for Mumbai's three sites, which as we are seeing, are faced with their own set of challenges. It will be a matter of huge embarrassment if we allow matters to cause UNESCO to relook at their tags. After all, this isn't just about a tag but a stamp about how a city chooses to treat its heritage — manmade or natural.
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
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