The battle to save Kolkata's crumbling heritage buildings

As developers eye land, activists and residents fear the city's history is fading with the demolition of old structures.

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    The Kolkata skyline with Park Mansions in the foreground; the protected 1910 building today houses the Goethe Institut, Alliance Française du Bengale and a Starbucks [Neha Banka/Al Jazeera]
    The Kolkata skyline with Park Mansions in the foreground; the protected 1910 building today houses the Goethe Institut, Alliance Française du Bengale and a Starbucks [Neha Banka/Al Jazeera]

    Kolkata, India - For almost a century, the three-storey Old Kenilworth Hotel, the second oldest hotel in Kolkata, stood elegantly on a tree-lined street in the city centre, just around the corner from the United States consulate.

    With Venetian windows, cast-iron railings and a rooftop terrace, the colonial-style building was reminiscent of the old grandeur of the city, which was once the former capital of the British colony. It played host to countless diplomats and politicians who stayed there. 

    One early morning in March last year, city residents woke up to discover that the hotel's gate had been barricaded. Tarpaulin sheets blocked the view of the building as a demolition crew started knocking down the structure.

    Images began circulating on social media, provoking outrage among city conservationists and citizens who were shocked that a protected heritage building had been flattened. 

    Private developers had ordered the bulldozing. They were constructing a 62-storey residential tower on an adjacent plot. They wanted to flatten the Old Kenilworth Hotel to create two gates to the new block.

    This photo depicts Kolkata in the 1950s [Courtesy: Moti Sing Srimal]

    According to local news reports, a consortium of four private developers obtained a permit from the city to proceed with the project, despite heritage laws that prohibit external changes to the building, let alone its demolition. 

    The developers managed to get city officials to downgrade the property's heritage status to a category that would permit its destruction, news reports said.

    "The hotel had ceased function and had no special heritage value or architectural value as determined by the Heritage Conservation Committee and was hence downgraded. We don't remember being accused of bribery and I have no knowledge of this," said Subrata Sil, head of the project management unit at Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

    Critics say the moment reflects the government's indifference in protecting the city's heritage, allowing its iconic buildings to fall prey to gentrification and development.

    Others accuse the government of knowingly skirting heritage laws, and deliberately looking away, while the city's past is being erased.

    Owners of this residential building in south Kolkata have leased out the ground floor of their home to a pharmacy [Neha Banka/Al Jazeera]

    "We told [protesters] to take the matter to court. If there were illegal activities, why aren't they going to court? I don't know why they are suddenly protesting. There are always people creating a ruckus about heritage conservation here," said Sil.

    In other cities, buildings have been turned into tourist attractions or boutique hotels, while also preserving their past.

    "Conservation and preservation work in cities like London, Penang and Malacca have shown that architectural wealth can be conserved for adaptive reuse and for tourism to generate revenue," said GM Kapur, state convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

    Heritage buildings in Kolkata occupy large areas of land in coveted neighbourhoods - prime targets of developers. 

    Some property owners are also blamed for allowing centuries-old structures to rot and crumble, making it easier for developers to show cause for demolition.

    "Citing human safety as a key reason for demolition is something that one can rarely debate about. But the real motivation is obviously real estate benefit over tenant interests," said Kamalika Bose, heritage preservation planner at Heritage Synergies India.

    In Calcutta, there is no clear idea of why buildings need to be conserved and what needs to be conserved. That the entire city is a site of valuable architectural heritage, was not being recognised.

    Amit Chaudhuri, author and founder of Calcutta Architectural Legacies

    Last October, a century-old house that belonged to noted Sanskrit scholar Gurupada Haldar was also torn down. 

    His descendant, Priyojith Haldar, said that family members illegally sold off their ownership to a developer, who proceeded to level the building despite court orders. Police and conservationists tried to intervene, but by then it was too late.

    Kolkata's architecture is a unique mix of styles, reflecting the communities that settled in the city over the decades, a diverse collection not seen anywhere else in India.

    Classical residential buildings, art deco commercial structures, gothic administrative buildings and Bengali-style homes dot the city.

    Recent developments are slowly altering the cityscape.

    "In Calcutta [old name of Kolkata], there is no clear idea of why buildings need to be conserved and what needs to be conserved. That the entire city is a site of valuable architectural heritage, was not being recognised," said Amit Chaudhuri, an author and the founder of Calcutta Architectural Legacies.

    "It's been easy for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the city government to let developers buy buildings for easy cash while they refuse to think about alternatives."

    Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, a large marble building, pictured in the 1950s [Courtesy: Moti Sing Srimal]

    In the case of the Old Kenilworth Hotel, it was not supposed to be touched as prescribed by the city's heritage conservation laws.

    David Purdy, the former owner of the hotel, recalled the challenges he faced in securing approval for basic upkeep and maintenance.

    "Since the building was a heritage structure, I needed permission from the Heritage Conservation Committee to make even the smallest of repairs or to give it a coat of paint. I was shocked to hear that it was demolished," he said.

    Industry insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described how developers go to great lengths to circumvent conservation laws, and are willing to pay bribes to delist or downgrade structures because of the value of the land that heritage structures are built on.

    Kapur of the National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage said developers and owners cite high costs, expanding families and deterioration of the buildings to gain demolition permits.

    A dilapidated mansion-style building from 1919 that has been converted into a post office; detailed Indo-Corinthian pilaster work and wooden Venetian windows can be seen on its facade [Neha Banka/Al Jazeera]

    The Palace Court is an opulent urban housing complex typical of the early 20th century. Constructed in Kolkata's city centre in 1926, it spans 62,500 square feet. 

    Sanjay Agarwal, 56, a Palace Court resident, said the landlords left the building in intentional disrepair, hoping that tenants would leave out of frustration.

    "The landlords are trying to evict tenants in a way that they don't get into legal trouble," said Agarwal.

    The owners want to "pressure tenants to leave, he continues, by not allowing them to make even the smallest of repairs in their homes. 

    "The fire escape got corroded some time back and fell down, but he isn't repairing it," Agarwal said, referring to one of the landlords. "If there is a fire, people won't be able to escape."

    Kolkata, also known as Calcutta, has traditions in culture and education [Courtesy: Moti Sing Srimal]

    The Palace Court has been embroiled in a long-running complex legal dispute. Despite several attempts, the court-appointed landlords, Mahmud Ali, Mahmood Hasan, Mohammad Tahir, did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    Pradeep Chopra, a real-estate businessman, said that the charges against the industry are unjustified.

    "If the building owner is not interested in preserving and conserving the building, then what can a real estate developer do?" he said. 

    Chopra said the city should incentivise and compensate owners, pointing to cities like Ahmedabad and Mumbai, which have managed to preserve their architectural history while making space for new construction.

    "If the city government continues this way, the endangered architecture of the city, whether by real-estate developers or natural elements, will be gone in three years, if not sooner," said Chopra.

    Susanta Nag, 75, a retired government official, lamented how Kolkata is changing before his eyes.

    "I was in the neighbourhood of Sealdah for 40 years before I moved to another neighbourhood. I went to see an old friend who still lived there and I found that he had passed away and his old house was gone too, replaced by a new three-storey building," he said.

    "There is a Bengali saying that 'the inside of my heart hurts'. It's that same feeling. That my friend and his house are gone and they won't come back."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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