Mumbai: Esplanade holds key to heritage tag for whole precinct

Updated: Jun 11, 2019, 07:32 IST | Arita Sarkar

Exclusive: UNESCO tells mid-day if Esplanade Mansion is demolished, it will likely send a team to evaluate whether the cluster of buildings deserves to retain its inscription of 'Victorian Gothic & Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai'

Mumbai: Esplanade holds key to heritage tag for whole precinct
Oval Maiden

Even as the Bombay High Court is yet to take a final decision on the fate of the Esplanade Mansion, bringing down the 150-year-old building could rob a cluster of others in Fort of the title of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which they received in June 2018. UNESCO told mid-day that if Esplanade Mansion is demolished, they are likely to send a team to evaluate whether the remaining cluster of buildings deserves to retain the inscription of 'Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai'.

Esplanade happens to be the third site in the city with the tag, following the Elephanta Caves and CSMT. In the ongoing legal case, MHADA submitted a notice of motion in HC last month asking for permission to demolish Esplanade based on recommendations made by IIT-Bombay in their structural audit report.

UNESCO says

Considering the possibility of the demolition, mid-day reached out to Eric Falt, director of the UNESCO Cluster office in New Delhi to inquire about the possible repercussions of such an action.

The Esplanade Mansion happens to be the third site in the city with the World Heritage Site tag, following the Elephanta Caves and CSMT
The Esplanade Mansion happens to be the third site in the city with the World Heritage Site tag, following the Elephanta Caves and CSMT

Speaking to mid-day, Falt said, "In case this building is indeed demolished, the World Heritage Committee [which consists of the representatives of 21 member countries] would be alerted and might well consider sending a mission to evaluate whether or not this World Heritage Site has lost its Outstanding Universal Value. Following such a mission, and depending on its conclusions, the World Heritage Committee would take a decision on this issue."

Looking at CM

Heritage activists and citizen's groups who made great efforts to ensure that the cluster of Fort buildings is included in the dossier feel Esplanade's demolition would be a big loss to the city. Abha Narain Lambah, city-based conservation architect, had presented the dossier to the UNESCO in Manama, Bahrain. She pointed out that it took 14 years to get the Maharashtra government to write to the Government of India to propose Mumbai's Victorian and Art Deco sites on the tentative list for World Heritage Sites, until the final inscription was announced last year.

She added that since the inscription went to UNESCO under the leadership of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, "We look towards our CM to save this historic building. Maharashtra had given its commitment to UNESCO last year to keep the structure's integrity undiluted."

A national loss

Atul Kumar, vice president of the Nariman Point Churchgate Citizens Association felt the authorities concerned will have to meet all the commitments they gave to UNESCO. "It would be a tragedy to have it compromised as we approach the first anniversary of the inscription on June 30. This is not only a loss to the city but also a national loss, in terms of architecture, culture, and from a historical perspective of the city's development. Only two World Heritage Sites have ever been de-listed and that would not be a distinction we would like on our country or on our city," he said.

Nayana Kathpalia, trustee, NAGAR (NGO Alliance for Governance and Renewal), similarly felt it is vital to restore Esplanade, which is a unique building. Objecting to IIT-B's recommendations, she said, "It's not as if conservation architects are saying it cannot be done. They have more expertise in all of this than some professor at IIT-B. We should not reach a stage where a UNESCO mission comes to see the status of our property."

Contrary to IIT-B's claims of the 'rigidity of the structure' being 'lost', Cyrus Guzder, eminent urban activist, industrialist and environmentalist feels that with a proper budget and advice of expert structural engineers, the building can be restored. "It would be tragic for the city if the world heritage listing for the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble and precinct were to be withdrawn. This would indicate that despite our written assurances to UNESCO, we lack the commitment to protect our built heritage," he said. Guzder added the building has stood for 150 years, which is a testament to its 'extraordinarily robust design and engineering.

Also making an appeal to the CM are a group of heritage activists, who had written to him last week, requesting that the structure be protected. Among them was conservation architect Pankaj Joshi, who said, "It'll be a highly problematic situation when you get a nomination and then demolish the building. The building has global importance and it is the responsibility of the city that the ensemble remains intact."

Ensure integrity of building

Following the activists, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) India on Monday sent a letter to the CM, president of MHADA, the Urban Development Department and the BMC, among others to raise their concerns about the demolition.

The letter recommended that conservation and structural retrofitting of the building must be done as per the recommendations submitted by them and the conservation strategy must ensure the protection of the 'authenticity and integrity' of the building.

The letter also stated that a 'comprehensive scientific investigation and structural analysis with seismic modelling' should be carried out by structural engineers experienced in cast iron restoration. ICOMOS also offered to give technical guidance for the conservation.

'Work with UNESCO'

Apart from heritage activists, the efforts to get the world heritage tag for the precinct were supported by politicians like Congress leader Milind Deora and BJP spokesperson Shaina NC. For Deora, this building has a lot of personal value.

"I have fond memories of the building since I would visit my grandmother who lived there. The place has a long legacy from the time it hosted Mark Twain when it was the Watson's Hotel. These are the places that ideally should be restored in a great city like ours," he said.

Deora added that despite being in the opposition, he would support the government in its efforts to restore Esplanade, "I would urge them to work with UNESCO. The government will have to intervene at the highest level and take control of the process. Then everyone, including MHADA, will fall in line," he said. Shaina NC remained unavailable for comment.

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