Last Thursday, a Dhaka-based organisation working with conservation of heritage posted urgently on Facebook about an unfortunate development unfolding in Lakhsmibazaar.
“We just got to know today that the century-old beautiful building in Nobodwip Basak lane number 3 will be broken down on April 16. The contractor hired to do the job has already moved into the property,” the post by Urban Study Group (USG) states. Attached is an image of a home, the architecture of which is one of a kind and very rarely seen nowadays. The front facade has the atypical arches of the past decades, intricate floral accolades embellishing its peaks. A whimsical second-storey balcony runs along the length of the building, supported by five arches. Half-moon shaped stained-glass panels curve around their inner-edges, giving the residents some respite from the sun.
The post went on to further state that the building is currently engaged in a legal battle that is awaiting a decision from the court and thereby demolishing it will be illegal. The building is currently enlisted in a heritage conservation list compiled by the USG and the High Court issued a directive asking that the list be examined by the government for approval. Until the list is approved by the government and submitted to the court, the building will remain a sub judice matter.
That has not stopped the owners from bringing in the equipment to demolish it, and that is because of one frightening reason—they are granted impunity by the government even when violating court orders. That seems to be the case for just about every other old building with heritage value in Old Dhaka.
They said go ahead
That the government overtly shows their lack of concern about the preservation of heritage structures can be understood from the fact that the centuries-old Khamarbari laboratory building—demolished last year—was being broken down by the Public Works Department. This was the first laboratory of the country and was completely levelled to the ground late last year after an intense legal battle. The building was called the Agricultural Extension building before being demolished, and was the only such heritage building in North Dhaka. This was not a structure hidden away like a gem somewhere in Old Dhaka—it stood proudly beside the Farmgate intersection, providing all passers-by a glimpse into our scientific and architectural history. The public outcry was not just in the newspapers and on television; crowds thronged at the site to protest. Even as the public stood with banners, construction workers lurked about steadily tearing apart the structure. The High Court clamped down on the demolition. The workers kept on doing their job, ignoring the judicial order. By the time the case rolled into the Supreme Court, they had torn down all that was special about the building.
The Supreme Court did not give a verdict favourable to preservation—they asked PWD to proceed with the demolition based on their unilateral analysis that the building was risky. “There is no legal bar to demolish and remove the old building at Khamarbari following the order. The government will construct a new structure there,” said Deputy Attorney General SM Moniruzzaman to The Daily Star right after the Court's decision sealed the fate of the building. All that is left of the first home to scientific innovation in this country is a red dusty open space that can now be used as a parking space.
The century-old building on Hrishikesh Das Road that was demolished last month, faced a similar fate as owners enjoyed impunity, openly flouting a High Court order. On March 18, the High Court forbade the authorities from proceeding with the demolition for the next six months. A few days after the order however the owners restarted the demolition, defacing the building beyond recognition. This building too had trademark columns and arches decorating its front facade, an architectural element not seen in the mass-produced apartment blocks built these days. The first thing that the demolishers did was knock out the arches and columns, stripping the building of its identity and putting it beyond the public eye forever. Now people passing by will not see a heritage site being torn down; they will just see a broken-down building. Very few people would notice that the bricks peeking through the ruins are of a different colour, of a thinner shape, not quite of this time period. Very few would notice that this heap of dust and bricks is special and needs to be protected.
That the government is not serious about the preservation of heritage buildings can be understood from the fact that the last time they reformed the list of heritage sites to be protected, they whittled it down. This happened last November and Rajuk reduced the protected building list from 92 buildings to 75. By comparison, the list that Urban Study Group put forth has 2,283 heritage buildings for their historic value, all of which can be restored and preserved.
Also omitted were four streets which were given blanket protection status. The building on Hrishikesh Das road described above was a recipient of that protection. It had been kept safe by a protected status all these years, only to be broken down mere months after the government lifted the protection.
During the time when the building was being broken down, Taimur Islam, the chief executive officer of USG told The Daily Star: “Hrishikesh Das Road is one of the oldest streets in Old Dhaka. Although most of the buildings on this street were constructed in the colonial period, there are a couple of buildings which have their ground floors built in the style introduced by Mughal governor (subadar) Shayesta Khan.”
That the government's heritage buildings were chosen arbitrarily can be seen from the fact that the eye-catching mansion one encounters while going to the Armenian Church in Armanitola is not on the heritage list. The mansion, colloquially known as Niki Saheb ki Kothi was the home of Armenian landowner and merchant, Nicholas Pogose. Along with being a vibrant member of the Armenian diaspora, Nicholas Pogose also happened to have established the first private school in Dhaka in 1848, known as Pogose School (also a beautiful old building in itself). The home, built on 19 decimals of land, stands out for its size and the beautiful sculptural embellishments around its wide windows. In later years, it was used as the office and warehouse for an herbal medicine company.
Doing nothing to make amends
And so it was broken down, last October. The High Court intervened, stopping the demolition, but on a recent visit to the building, it was observed that the structure was vulnerable and exposed to the elements. The structure looks like it is crumbling from the top. The wide floor-length windows which lit up rooms as recent as last year are rendered useless with the roof gone. Peeking through them from the outside, one can see the sky.
Steps can be taken from the government's side to begin restoration and reconstruction, but none of that is being done. According to the law, it is the government's responsibility to “take such steps as itmay consider necessary for the custody, preservation and protection of the antiquity”. In spite of the fact that the High Court has recognised the heritage value of the mansion, there has been no initiative from the authorities to start any restoration.
This has been the fate for many such buildings. Each year, a handful of buildings are demolished by their owners and the Urban Study Group submits petition after petition to save the building—or at least attempting to, before much damage is done. With no steps taken by the government to provide solutions to the contentious heritage sites, they lay withering.
Leaving a building lying like that not only erodes the heritage value of the area, but also creates ground for the government to pass it off as a risk to public safety. For example, in one case concerning the District Council Building, the court observes: “The main structure of the building, including the roofs of all the three floors, have already been demolished and only the walls are yet to be removed. Under such circumstances, if the property is maintained in its present form, this will create a threat to human life [...].” The building could not be saved.
The need of the hour is more initiative from the government.
“Every time we bring a petition to the High Court regarding, say, a building in Shakharibazaar, they order the work be stopped. The Court's decision is sending out a message to the government that these buildings should be preserved,” says Taimur.
“On one hand the government is not complying, and on the other hand the Court is ordering more and more interventions. At first the orders were about saving buildings, then it became about preserving a group of buildings or declaring an area as a heritage area, or providing compensation to the residents. At some point you would expect the government to be proactive about it,” he adds.
The stay order is only doing the initial damage control.
“We stopped demolition of the Brahma Samaj library with a stay order that has lasted for six or seven years. They never made a move [to bring the case back to court],” says Taimur. “We too have been extending the stay, because at least it means the library will not be demolished.”
Currently, there are at least four different departments that can take steps to restore the buildings that were broken down, or provide compensation to residents in exchange of pledges to not demolish the buildings. Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, the Public Works Department and Deputy Commissioner's (DC) office can all take responsibility—but the burden always seems to be shifted to the Department of Archaeology, one of the most under-funded government offices. The Old Dhaka problem requires rehabilitation, land acquisition and compensation, all of which are resource-heavy projects concerning the lives and livelihoods of humans.
“Why should it only be the Department of Archaeology?” asks Taimur.
The government can also file charges against the residents for demolishing antiquities, a violation punishable by law. There are one or two instances where the government has taken baby steps yielding positive results, thus showing how the government can intervene for the better, says Taimur. “There was a property on Kotwali Road which was a vested property illegally occupied, following the writ the DC office pressed charges and gained back control.”
Perhaps a line from the District Council building case is the best way to sum up the message in all this: “This building might have all the criterion of being declared as a heritage building, whose maintenance and preservation is the prime duty of all concerned in respect of maintaining our culture and heritage, but simply due to negligence in preparing, updating the heritage property list in due time, such property is being demolished, which could have been saved and protected if timely moves had been taken.”
Timely moves that recognise, protect and restore.