More than a century old buildings in Old Dhaka which speak of history are going to be a history themselves. And this dire condition is mainly caused by a blame game about who would protect these heritage sites, according to an expert and The Daily Star investigations.
Take the case of 120-year-old Baro Bari whose distinct French rococo-style design stands out in rows of old buildings, on BK Das road, which was declared a heritage thoroughfare along with eight other roads in Old Dhaka and a total of 94 buildings in 2009 following a writ petition filed by an architect, Taimur Islam.
With colour peeling off and bricks crumbling, the building is now being used for binding books.
The blame game starts when the owner of the building, Shakil, was asked about its bleak look and precarious existence.
“Having inherited this building from my father, I leased it to some people for binding books. Though it is in a vulnerable condition, I am too poor to bear the cost of renovation,” he said.
Urban Study Group (USG), an organisation struggling for years to preserve the heritage sites, filed another writ petition with the Supreme Court in October 2012 to protect at least 2,500 buildings with heritage status after finding that the century-old district council building in Old Dhaka was demolished as it was not enlisted in the list that the government made in 2009.
Hearing the petition, the Supreme Court in 2013 passed an order asking the authorities concerned, including Rajuk, Urban Development Community (UDC), and the Department of Archeology (DoA), to update the list of buildings with heritage values and formulate policies for protecting the sites.
The order also directed those bodies to renovate the heritage sites or construct similar buildings, only if needed, after demolishing the vulnerable structures and also to compensate the owners, mentioned Taimur, also CEO of the UGS.
But the authorities concerned neither updated the list nor took any other initiative. And the building owners are using the same excuse as Shakil's to lease their land to developer companies to construct high-rises for benefits, claimed the locals.
Dr Ataur Rahman, regional director of the DoA, said they sent a team to visit Baro Bari but they had to return on receiving threats from Shakil.
Ataur quoted Shakil as saying, "Nobody can vacate this building; if anyone even tries, I will teach them a good lesson."
Samir Chandra Saha, a member of the executive committee of Bihari Lal Geo Temple on BK Das road, said, “If the authorities concerned follow the SC order, the owners will never dare to build high-rises on their land.”
“Why the heritage site will have to struggle for its existence while the constitution of Bangladesh and the Antiquities Act 1968 both state that the government should take necessary steps to preserve any urban site, street, group of buildings or public-squares with special historical or artistic values?" asked Taimur. However, the act did not mention any clear direction about the protection process.
If necessary measures are not taken immediately to protect Baro Bari, it may be knocked down anytime like Kalachand Temple, an endowed property enlisted in the 2009 heritage sites' list, in Shankhari Bazar, said Taimur, adding that the locals have witnessed demolishing of over 50 structures of Mughal and British era in the last seven months.
Contacted, AZM Shafiul Hannan, authorised officer, zone 7, Rajuk, which is also liable to protect the site, said the four-storey temple was demolished after getting a clearance certificate from the UDC.
“Moreover, the vulnerable condition of the century-old building compelled us to bulldoze this,” he added.
The blame runs in a cycle when Dr Ataur of DoA said, “Clearance from UDC was not enough to demolish the temple which could easily be renovated. Moreover, the DoA was not even informed before about demolishing the building.”
About Ataur's claim, Shafiul of Rajuk said they demolished it as a similar building will be constructed at that place.
But the locals and the priest, Bijay Bhattachariya, who was forced out of the temple amid threats from the leader, claimed that the temple was knocked down in July to meet the ill motive of a developer company blessed by a local leader of pro-AL Swechchashebak League.
Taimur also mentioned that just a day before last Eid, a portion of Old Dhaka's Bhawal Raja's residence was demolished taking the advantage of Eid holidays.
The historic residence could have been turned into a beautiful heritage site.
Another building with heritage status, holding no 13/14, in Rupchand lane was demolished in August, he added.
If the list was updated soon after the SC order, many historic structures, including Baro Bari and Bhawal Raja's residence, would have definitely been declared protected archaeological sites, said Taimur, adding that everyone is taking advantage of negligence of the authorities concerned for own benefits.
Enough is enough, now the government should take clear stance to protect the century-old buildings with heritage status and restore those, stressed the architect.