Madras that is Chennai may be home to many firsts but when it comes to heritage it is quite clear that other cities of India, including smaller ones such as Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, have stolen a considerable lead over it. That at least was the picture that emerged at a seminar on Conservation of Heritage Buildings and Precincts in the Chennai Metropolitan Area, organised by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Corporation.

While the home team, as represented by members of the Heritage Conservation Committee and the CMDA did not exactly cover themselves in glory and restricted themselves to mouthing platitudes, representatives of civic bodies and planning agencies of other cities presented with considerable pride what had been achieved at their end.

Ahmedabad’s record was clearly the most impressive. Not only was that city the first in India to establish a heritage cell within the Corporation but it also listed as many as 2000 buildings listed as heritage structures under various grades and these were brought under specially framed rules of the Corporation in 2008. The entire walled city, which spans an area of 5 sq km has been declared a heritage precinct and extensive documentation is now ongoing on the various pols, perhaps the earliest instance of a gated community, that dot the city. In order to promote public awareness, the Corporation under a specially designated officer in charge of the heritage cell, has been conducting heritage walks for over 15 years. These are entirely run by volunteers. This has resulted in enormous enthusiasm among the owners of some of the heritage buildings along the route and they have even printed brochures on the histories of their respective properties. One of the awed participants in the walk one year was the French Ambassador to India who initiated a collaborative exercise between his country and the Gujarat government to revitalise the walled city. The Corporation, realising that owners of heritage buildings are often hard-pressed for funds to carry out renovations, has signed up with HUDCO and the latter organisations offer loans to owners at reduced rates of interest. In order to enthuse the younger generation, books have been brought out for children on the city’s heritage. There is continuous contact with media and documentaries have been made on the city by National Geographic and other channels. All these steps have enthused the real estate lobby, traditionally viewed as anti-heritage. Some of the developers are adopting heritage buildings and maintaining them at their own expense.

In Mysore, the Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage is working on getting six towns – Bidar, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Kittur, Srirangapatna and Mysore as heritage precincts. Heritage rules have been drafted and an amendment to the Urban Town and Country Planning Act is amended to effect a Heritage Act. Within Mysore town, 200 buildings are listed and there is an effort ongoing to restore the surroundings of these buildings with period iron seats, lamp-posts and grilles. Steps are being taken to get UNESCO to extend its protection to some of Mysore’s famed intangible aspects of heritage – the Dussehra, the Mysore mallige (jasmine), sandal, silks and others. The department has an enviable budget of Rs 100 crores to carry out its tasks.

Kolkata has 917 listed heritage buildings under four categories. The city passed a Heritage Act in 1997 and this was later extended to cover the whole state. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has Director-General in charge of its heritage cell. This cell has the right to declare a building as a heritage structure. The KMC clearly lists out rights and responsibilities of owners of heritage buildings and also funds their maintenance under grants based on applications whose merits are adjudged by a committee. Property Tax is charged at reduced rates for heritage properties and such buildings are often allowed to change their status – for example from residential to commercial to enable better revenue generation. The entire central business district of Dalhousie Square is now being taken up for restoration and the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi is studying it.

The capital city of Delhi has a plethora of monuments and also as many as 16 civic bodies, government departments and institutions that claim jurisdiction over several of the heritage buildings. It took a battle of 10 years for the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to notify its list of 100 heritage buildings but the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which has the larger share of historical structures is yet to do so. But there is a clear route for protection of most structures with the Urban Arts Commission playing an important role.

Hyderabad has 151 listed heritage buildings and 30 precincts, including its famous rock formations. This city was one of the first to have a heritage movement, as early as 1975. The Heritage Conservation Committee was formed in 1999 and together with the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority, it is now involved in putting up informative plaques at various locations in the city. Efforts are on to declare the Charminar area a pedestrian zone.

All speakers listed certain common problems- the problem of funding was one and it was pointed out that the benefits owners of heritage properties get by way of tax waivers is a pittance compared to the money they will earn by redevelopment. This is a major issue and there is no clear answer to it. The much-touted transfer of development rights is not the panacea it is believed to be and there are several problems associated with its administration. Lastly, no city except Kolkata really has a heritage act and so a sudden rethink by any government can mean that protection could be withdrawn from all buildings.

While these issues do exist, what is clear is that other cities have stolen a march on Chennai. Can our CMDA and HCC make up for lost time?