Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Our Unprotected Heritage


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By Glenn C Kharkongor

The spirited debate on Tara Ghar has brought into sharp focus the urgent need to consider the protection of the precious but fragile heritage of Shillong and Meghalaya. There is the intermittent outcry raised by civil society and the occasional investigative piece in the media, but these patchwork efforts need to be dovetailed into aconstructive collaboration with the government. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) a quasi-government body, has been in the forefront of heritage preservation since 1984. It has separate divisions for architectural heritage, natural heritage, material heritage, intangible heritage and craft and community heritage. The INTACH legislative cell has assisted several states eg Rajasthan and Jammu & Kashmir to enact heritage conservation legislation and to approach the courts to prevent damage or demolition of heritage structures. Most Indian states including the northeast states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim have lists of protected monuments and other antiquities. Meghalaya is one of the few states that does not seem to have such a list. Physical heritage Physical heritage is defined by INTACH as including “buildings, artifacts, structures, areas, streets and precincts of historic, aesthetic, architectural, cultural or environmental significance and natural features of environmental value or scenic beauty including but not restricted to sacred groves, scenic points, walks, rides, paths, hills, water bodies, open areas and wooded areas etc.” INTACH estimates that the number of listed buildings in India is only 0.25% of what it should be. England has more than half a million protected monuments and buildings. India, a much larger country and with a longer and richer history has hardly twenty thousand listed. Listing does not need elaborate data, it does not have to be done by an architect. Any person with knowledge, interest and guidance can do the initial listing. Listing is not expensive, 477 buildings were listed in Panaji for Rs 25,000.

The INTACH legislative cell has assisted several states eg Rajasthan and Jammu & Kashmir to enact heritage conservation legislation and to approach the courts to prevent damage or demolition of heritage structures. Most Indian states including the northeast states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim have lists of protected monuments and other antiquities. Meghalaya is one of the few states that does not seem to have
such a list.

In 1995, the Ministry of Environment and Forests framed a draft of Model Regulations for Conservation of Heritage (both natural and manmade), which was circulated to all states for adoption. In 1998 the Minister wrote to the Chief Ministers recommending that legislation be enacted in all states. The courts have been active in heritage protection. In 1998, the Bombay High Court ordered the Government of Maharashtra to draw up a heritage list and frame regulations within four months. Legislation or regulation cannot restore a building, but it does much more. It prevents the biggest threat to physical heritage, namely demolition. And it does not mean that a heritage building cannot be used, altered, leased out or sold. Apart from a uniqueness of its own, Shillong falls into to other categories. It is a hill station, one of two hundred plus which are listed by the Ministry of Environment as containing some of India’s most beautiful, heritage rich and environmentally sensitive areas. Shillong is also listed as one of the 62 cantonment towns in the country under the Cantonments Act 2006, which has explicit conservation provisions. Natural heritage

India has the following kinds of protected areas: national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, biosphere reserves, reserved and protected forests, conservation and community reserves, village and panchayat forests and private protected areas. Apart from these are forests and lands that have special status under Schedule VI. Even though Indian legislation does not provide protection of such areas, some district councils, traditional governing bodies and NGOs are taking initiatives in conservation efforts, and providing limited protection. There are a few protected parks in Meghalaya such as Nongkhyllem, Norpuh, Siju, Balpakram and Nokrek. These have enormous tourism potential, but protection and development are hardly visible. Conservation of natural heritage does not mean only creating wildlife sanctuaries, and even then these are only limited to areas under the forest department. Local autonomous bodies need to take more measures for protection against the trend of deforestation, mining and indiscriminate harvesting of forest produce. Forests and other habitats of biodiversity need protection because they contribute to economic, food and health security. Sustainable harvesting of forest products can yield annual incomes from timber, bamboo and ornamental plants. The biggest threat to traditional medicine, the mainstay of rural healthcare, is diminishing supply of medicinal plants from the forests. A recent survey of 240 households in 12 villages in the four districts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills showed that 19-54% of the rural population still forage for wild fruits and vegetables from the forest.

Intangible heritage UNESCO describes intangible cultural heritage as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated with communities, groups, and in some cases, individuals that are recognized as part of their cultural heritage. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects in a museum. It includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, crafts, and the knowledge and skills that underpin all these that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. UNESCO has listed 232 dances, crafts, music, festivals, as Intangible Cultural Heritage, including seven from India. The latest to be added is the Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan. Sacred spaces The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) took up an initiative called Protected Landscapes and Cultural and Spiritual Values in 2008. This encapsulates the concept that with the interaction of people and nature over a long period of time, distinctive cultural and spiritual values are layered into the biodiversity of the place. That society is now harmoniously intertwined and in equilibrium with the natural landscape, a relationship that sustains physical and spiritual well-being and provides cultural identity and rootedness.

The Cartesian dualism of mind and matter or the dichotomy between the material and spiritual does not exist here. In many indigenous societies spiritual realities permeate everything, and humans, nature and the cosmos are strands of the same web. Western science and philosophy does not have adequate terminologies or concepts to describe this model. One such protected place in India is Demojong in Sikkim, a biosphere that includes Mt Khangchendzonga, from whose slopes the Lepcha tribe originated. In Meghalaya, many such landscapes and cultural emblems exist including sacred forests, monoliths, mawbah, dance grounds, streams and mountains. Many of these are the sites of folklore and religious value. Of particular significance are Lum Shyllong, Lum Sohpetbneng, Lum Diengei, Tura Peak and Balpakram. Each of these locations should be protected as cultural and sacred landscapes. Unsightly telecom towers, diesel generators and other so-called development projects have already caused sacrilege in these spaces. Our future as a tribal society is inextricably linked to our heritage. Not that we should be caught in a time warp, or in a romantic dream world, but that the legacy of the past will stand us in good stead in this modern era. Apart from retaining a sense of cultural identity, and having pride in a multi-faceted culture, the bounty of our natural heritage can yield development and commercial gains if nurtured and applied in a sustainable manner. Let us not damage and squander this precious legacy, which provides succour and sustenance. (The writer is Vice Chancellor, Martin Luther Christian University and a life member of INTACH)

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