How Mumbai, Delhi Lost The Race To ‘World Heritage City’ To Ahmedabad – OpEd


India finally got her first World Heritage City and how. On July 8, 2017, the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat was declared a World Heritage City — making history of sorts. In its hurtle to the top, it beat heritage heavyweights Mumbai and Delhi. But it took one hell of a journey over four years before it got to earn its rightful place.

In 2013, after months of speculation, the World Heritage Expert Committee established by the Culture Ministry gave a clean chit to the final dossiers of Delhi and Mumbai for UNESCO’s World Heritage Status. The dossiers were dispatched to UNESCO headquarters for a completion check. Once they got the clearance, the ministry would decide which should be India’s official nomination in cultural category to be submitted by January 2014.

Location of Gujarat in India. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Location of Gujarat in India. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Both the cities went into a PR overdrive to push for the coveted status. Mumbai’s nomination — the Victorian and Art Deco ensemble along with the Oval Maidan precinct — comprises buildings belonging to two centuries and architectural styles — the 19th century Victorian Neo Gothic architecture and 20th century’s Art Deco. Delhi’s nomination — Shahjanabad and Lutyens Building zone — on the other hand, brought to fore the sharply-contrasting lifestyles of the two distinct regimes.

Apparently, the expert committee recommended few changes to Delhi’s dossier through a detailed appraisal note given to INTACH for revisions. The proposed precinct, according to Mumbai’s dossier, extended from the Bombay gothic buildings lining one side of the ground to the other side that stretched till Marine Drive, in between which lay “the largest conglomeration of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami”.

Delhi’s ‘imperial cities’ dossier revealed stark differences in architecture, lifestyle and nature of two contradictory time periods; while one was under the Mughal empire, the second was under British colonial rule.

Meanwhile, a plain Ahmedabad, also in the ‘race’ so to speak, hit a predictable roadblock. The expert committee simply did not consider Ahmedabad’s dossier, as it was incomplete in some sections though the documentation work was termed excellent, said sources. The expert committee said Ahmedabad’s proposal “could be submitted to UNESCO after finishing the incomplete sections as a third priority, if a third dossier is accepted.” The ministry would take a final call by January 31, 2014 based on recommendations by the expert committee.

In 2016, in a surprise move, the government decided to nominate Ahmedabad for the UNESCO world heritage city tag. January 30 was the last date for countries to send their nominations to UNESCO for the title, of which results were to be announced in June 2017, and the government confirmed that Ahmedabad, and not Delhi or Mumbai as was felt earlier, was its pick.

“While Delhi’s proposal has been stuck with the Urban Development Ministry since last year, Mumbai’s proposal was not very strong. So we have decided to nominate Ahmedabad, which has a clear-cut proposal,” said Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma.

The Delhi government had, incidentally, written to the Culture Ministry to “resend Delhi’s nomination,” which was abruptly “put on hold” in 2015. And, although Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote to Sharma and PM Narendra Modi, respectively, to push for Mumbai, the proposal fell through at the Culture Ministry because, reportedly, the Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Corporation (BMC) asked them to exclude Victoria Terminus from the dossier. The move, felt Culture Ministry officials, would have spoiled Mumbai’s chances as the said building is an iconic landmark in Mumbai’s consciousness. It was roundly argued among Mumbai quarters there was anyway no reason to exclude Victoria Terminus as the dossier hadn’t included it in the first place.

Now, once the heritage tag is granted to a city, it puts certain restrictions on redevelopment and Mumbai simply can’t risk having any hurdles in the area of redevelopment which singularly holds the key to the city’s burgeoning housing issues. While there are over 250 world heritage cities across the globe, India — despite her rich history and heritage — didn’t have a single UNESCO-recognised world heritage city.

History changed for India and, in particular, the historic city of Ahmedabad, on July 8, 2017 when it was declared a World Heritage City at the 41st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meet in Krakow, in Poland. For the first time, an Indian city was declared a world heritage property.

Close to 20 countries that included Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Portugal, Peru, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Finland, Azerbaijan, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Korea, Croatia, Angola, Cuba and, the host country of the UNESCO session, Poland supported Ahmedabad’s nomination.

An ancient center of trade, bearing architectural testimonies to the Hindu-Muslim cultural fusion, the walled city of Ahmedabad has held a prominent position in the pages of history. The criteria for bagging the slot being: “bearing testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation which is living or has disappeared…” and “representing a masterpiece of human creative genius.” India’s permanent representative at UNESCO, Ruchire Kamboj said the city has stood for ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ for over 600 years while being one of the ‘finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and Hindu-Muslim art’.

The city is a breathing example of the blend of Hindu and Islamic heritage. Ahmedabad bears testimony to the prowess of Hindu, Muslim and Jain craftsmen. It houses the 15th century Bhadra Fort, the Jhulta Minar or swaying minaret and The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, one of the finest specimens of Indo-Saracenic style.

Possessing a landscape where the present blends seamlessly with history while boldly paving the way for the future, Ahmedabad’s mien stands unique owing poor little to European domination. Established in the year 1411 AD by Sultan Ahmad Shah of Gujarat, Ahmedabad was a product of the Sultan’s ambitions to form a trading rival to the Hindu trade centre of Asaval. Later, Ahmedabad was taken over by the Mughals, the Marathas and the British.

Most Indian cities are, as a rule, compared to Western prototypes, but Ahmedabad is, to a huge extent, an exception: And a proud one at that. From being one of the oldest trading points in India to becoming the focal point of the Indian Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi and then becoming a model for sustainable development in modern India, Ahmedabad has now become the nation’s first World Heritage City.

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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