It is a bewildering phenomenon to see the continuous onslaught on historical buildings that represent our heritage and our past. The recent decision taken by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to demolish the historic Kamalapur Railway Station building to make way for the MRT-6 line is a prime example of this trend. Bangladesh Railway (BR) and Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited (DMTCL) have reached a joint consensus to move the current railway station 130 metres further north and turn the present area into a multimodal transport hub (MmTH). It should be addressed that the initial design for the MRT-6 line was from Uttara to Motijheel. It was in 2019 that the DMTCL devised a new plan to stretch the MRT-6 line directly to the Kamalapur Railway Station. If the design can be changed once, it can be changed once again, if the government is willing to preserve a structure that has been a part of our national heritage for decades. However, the current circumstances are forcing us to believe that this is not going to be the case.
Old monuments are the reflection of a nation's history. They help us to understand and respect people who used to live in different eras, with particular habits and traditions. The existence of historical relics helps us to observe the changes that have occurred in a given society over time and also, to get a better understanding of the reasons that lead to the development of cities and societies. Old buildings are the faces of a city. They reflect the prosperity and economic conditions that a specific place has experienced. Their preservation plays an important role in cultivating pride among the inhabitants of a certain place about their past. Historical buildings also provide character and charm to the neighbourhoods where people usually live.
Conservation of heritage sites is very important because it provides a sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing world for future generations. Historical monuments possess immense cultural value, resulting from their beautiful architecture and their correlation with significant religious, social and political events that had originated in a specific area over a given time period. Old buildings provide people with a sense of connection to bygone eras, especially since they may have features that are not found anymore. Due to these characteristics, ageing architectural sites often possess a distinctive quality, which makes them more intriguing than the modern buildings. An added benefit of retaining and maintaining dated structures is that old methods of workmanship can be preserved by doing so. Historical monuments also attract tourists from all over the world and thus generate employment and economic benefits for the local populace.
Unfortunately, all of this knowledge is nonetheless unlikely to bear any fruit, as we are continuously finding both the government and the general populace of our country involved in the destruction of iconic monuments.
It is not only Kamalapur Railway Station that is on the cusp of extinction. Let us focus on another popular establishment, the Teacher Student Center (TSC) of the University of Dhaka. A report published in this daily on December 22, 2020 points to the worrisome fact that a decision has been taken to bulldoze this historical compound and replace it with a multi-storied structure. Another The Daily Star report published on November 18, 2020 says that a 200-year old building in the Armenian Street of Armanitola has been demolished by its present owners, in violation of a High Court order to make way for shops. Most recently, on January 7, 2021, this daily published a report revealing the attempts by a local influential person and his men to demolish the Shishubag School building in Chattogram, a 250-year old structure with links to the memories of the anti-British movement that originated in Bengal during the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Finally, two other reports published in this daily over the last few years indicate the attempts by the authorities to knock down the century-old Laboratory building in the capital's Khamarbari area, and another colonial era building in Sylhet's Chowhatta area, to erect two multi-storied buildings in their places.
There are a group of people who think that past relics stand in the way of development, progress and modernity. According to their views, old structures are a burden that we must get rid of at any cost in order to comply with the demands of the fast-moving world of the 21st century. Some of these people may have, unfortunately, found themselves in policy-making/influencing positions, and it is due to the disastrous decisions adopted by this certain quarter that we are continuously losing our sense of belonging.
History is important because it links our past with our present, preserving a trail of how we have arrived at our current state of being. At a time when everything around us looks alike, it becomes even more important for communities to ramp up their historic preservation efforts. Heritage buildings provide meaning to the people associated with them.
Are we going to lose track of our journey on the map of global history so far? Will we have to live without any distinction, significance or interesting stories to tell? Unfortunately, the current trend towards demolishing old structures provides positive answers to these aforementioned negative questions.
Muhammad A Bashed is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.