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THE CITY’S HERITAGE AT RISK: THE URGENCY FOR HERITAGE LEGISLATION IN VARANASI
So far Varanasi had been protected from the damages of development because it has remained outside development. But this is not going to last. One of the reasons is because neglect is taking its toll and architectural heritage could well be lost. The other reason is that India is developing fast and Varanasi cannot any longer remain an island outside this trend. But the question is “what sort of development” will Varanasi witness?
Tourism is seen as the potentially most promising industry. So there is an increased attention to look at tourism as the source to provide funds for the badly needed restorations. But does this mean that all the historic buildings along the river-front be converted into hotels? But by betraying the traditional usage of urban space, would we not be destroying the very resource for tourism, which is the “personality” of Varanasi?
In the name of development, especially with regard tourism, old structures are being modified or demolished even there where structures are made of stone and are not weak. Recent construction work and events in the old city centre demonstrate that even when ownership is in a single proprietor’s hands, he prefers rebuilding rather than renovating. The modification of urban spaces in the old city centre of Varanasi could also negatively and irreversibly alter the religious and cultural life for which the city is sacred and destroy the tourist attractions – both of which are the major sources of earning for its population.
The existing legislation is unable to prevent open spaces, even inside temple complexes, from being encroached upon by residential and commercial structures. These constructions are increasingly suffocating an already thickly populated and constructed area. The population growth is also over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the river eco-system and unplanned mass tourism could potentially have a hard impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city centre. Social hygiene and sanitation methods too are beginning to bend under the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population.
A legislative framework has been drafted and is being presented to both the central and the state governments. This paper will elaborate on the formulation, nature and objectives of these legislations.