Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Heritage turns to ashes


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The KJP Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Mawkhar went up in flames thereby obliterating every bit of its 131 years old rich legacy. In 2001 the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly building was similarly gutted because of a short circuit. The reasons for the KJP School fire are not yet known but considering that it’s largely a wooden structure even a small spark can start a fire. The timing at which the conflagration happened was also when the world was asleep and those in charge of fire tenders too would have taken time to respond. But having responded they were obstructed by the narrow passage into the school building premises and this has been the story with fire tenders. In November 2019 a 117 year old church at Qualapatty areas was also reduced to ashes evidently because of a short circuit, which is nearly always the culprit.

One by one Shillong’s legacy is going up in flames. We can never know what’s the next building that will turn into an inferno. However, there are some things that can be done but are not done in a systematic manner. Some years ago the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) with its headquarters in Delhi had, under the Presidentship of (L) AH Scott Lyngdoh in collaboration with the State Government identified certain heritage buildings in Shillong to be maintained and restored so that they are adequately protected from fires through sustained maintenance. This effort somehow fell by the wayside. Today INTACH has become a Shillong-based elite club that has lost focus. Heritage buildings don’t seem to feature on its agenda and yet heritage buildings of which the Raj Bhavan is a significant one are the characteristic features of Shillong. There are heritage buildings in Sohra and other places in the State which are lying in a state of disrepair. The question is – what is INTACH doing if not what is their mandate?

It is time for the State Government to come up with an action plan to conserve these heritage buildings or what’s left of them. Equally important is for the State Fire Service to reinvent itself to meet the needs of this heavily congested city. Knowing fully well that the fire tenders cannot access large parts of the localities, the Government ought to have got smaller vehicles that can maneuver  their way into these narrow lanes and  by-lanes to save lives and properties and above all history. That all the documents and books of the School have also turned to ashes is a painful thought for those that set up the institution and gave their sweat and tears in building up its physical infrastructure and intellectual wealth. Time for the Government to review the State Fire Service and come up with a better response system.

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