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Reviving the original City Centre…Second-Coming of Dalhousie Square

Bless yourself Kolkata. It is time to raise a toast.

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) based in New York for the cycle 2004 - 2006 has declared Dalhousie Square, once the nerve-centre of British colonial rule in the Indian sub-continent, as one of the 100 endangered cultural heritage sites. It joins hand with three other historical sites in India namely a palace at Bhuj, Qila Mubarak in Punjab and Osmania University in Hyderabad . Internationally it makes into the top bracket alongside the town of Falmouth in Jamaica , a monastery in Peru , Lower Manhattan, La Guaira city of Venezuela , George Town enclave in Malaysia, churches and synagogues in Italy , the Great Wall of China among others.

This will bring international attention and support to the protection and preservation of this site and will enable us, if we go about in a concerted and participatory way, to apply for competitive funds for specific projects. The Heritage Commission of the Government of West Bengal was quick to react and has already disclosed plans to declare the Dalhousie Square as a heritage precinct under the West Bengal Heritage Act.  This will enable implementation of conservation initiatives in Dalhousie Square .

It all did not happen one night. Dalhousie Square was nominated for listing to the WMF by ARCH (Action Research in Conservation of Heritage) which has been researching and campaigning for the conservation and maintenance of this significant city centre.  A grant award from India Foundation bolstered their efforts for the Arts, Bangalore . INTACH, local chapter, supported the application.

However, why Dalhousie Square above all? We had our arguments in place. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Calcutta reigned as the capital of the British Raj in India . At its heart stood Dalhousie Square , around which operated the political, financial, social world of the Indian Empire until the removal of the capital to New Delhi in 1911. Dalhousie Square is where British dreams were given their most extravagant expression. British architects filled the city with Neoclassical buildings, riverside promenades, and manicured parks, as well as office buildings and apartment houses, all constructed along the lines of European models. Many of the public buildings are outright copies: the governor's mansion is a duplicate of Kedleston Hall, a stately home in England . Kolkata's law courts are in a way replica of the statehouse in Ypres - though with an oddly truncated tower since the marshy foundations could not bear sufficient weight to build it as high as the original. Within 200 years Calcutta , a sleep hamlet along the Gangetic course was transformed into a bustling metropolis, as much a Victorian city as Manchester , Leeds or Birmingham , and grander by far than any of them.

Following the Independence the square was renamed Binoy-Badal-Dinesh (BBD) Bag after three freedom fighters that, in the 1930s, braved odds to storm into the bastion of British rule and spelt havoc. Dalhousie Square , the original city centre with a large central water body constitutes one of India 's few remaining colonial city centres to have retained a great number of period buildings, illustrating the significant stages in the evolution of the city of Calcutta from 1695 to the Independence in 1947.

The proposed Dalhousie Square Heritage Zone or precinct is not just the tank square but also includes the riverfront and the banking district behind the Writers Buildings, the State Secretariat. The entire precinct of Dalhousie Square has a grid iron layout with pronounced north-south and east-west axes. The St. Andrews Church lies in a classical manner along the road flanking Dalhousie Square East . The steps of the Governors House again lies on the classical axis with Writers Building only to be disturbed by a grotesque post-Independence highrise named Telephone Bhavan. The square has suffered decades of neglect. Many historic buildings were demolished over the years and incongruous, insensitive highrises were built citing 'development' as an alibi. Fortunately significant historical buildings survived this `development' as they have been mostly occupied by corporate institutions of old order and the State Government of West Bengal.

Parking is the most contentious yet the most urgent urban issue that plagues Dalhousie Square . Coincidentally when the parking problem has reached the zenith, efforts to revitalise Dalhousie square is afoot. The solution of parking within Dalhousie Square does not lie in a multilevel car parking below the tank alone.  The architectural design workshop on Dalhousie Square amongst architects in the city organised by ARCH suggested the following changes:

•  The number of cars entering Dalhousie square has to be reduced

•  The timings of thoroughfares of private buses have to be altered and controlled

•  The terminus facilities of minibus has to be relocated

•  Examining the possibility of creating parking lot at the ground level of the warehouses on Strand Road

•  Pollution free electrical buses to do their rounds in prefixed loops for public.

•  Creation of a multilevel car park that is completely submerged in the ground with well- worked out ingress
and egress points.

The order is tall and the odds are huge. The movement to revitalise the Dalhousie Square should start from the footpath itself, as any attempt will pivot around the conversion of existing space from low to high efficiency. This hinges on the extent to which space both built and non-built is reclaimed. The interpretation of the word redundant has to be extended to include spaces that are occupied by wasteful activities apart from spaces available in between building lots, backyards…

The footpaths for example are heavily encroached upon and function at low efficiency. Attempts have to be made to decongest them. This might be achieved by relocating vendors and hawkers in a more organised manner. The minibus stand occupying prime land is an eyesore in the middle of the city centre. Relocating these facilities will add to the land stock of Dalhousie Square .  Pedestrianisation in Dalhousie Square needs to be more pronounced and safer. Reclaiming of footpaths and designing the right linkages through the tank square will go a long way in achieving this objective. The reclaiming of footpaths is an absolute necessity and must be attempted at any cost. Displacement of street vendors and their rehabilitation will however have to be addressed simultaneously.

Riverfront is the next stop. The Strand Road along the riverfront and the vast redundant built up spaces of the warehouses is a most valuable urban asset and should serve as an opportunity to address the issues of food court, parking other than galleries, restaurants and office spaces.

The presence of the water tank (Lal Dighi, as we call it) in the middle of a city-centre is a huge plus. It is an invaluable asset when one considers that Trafalgar Square has only a fountain and Mumbai has only the semblance of a city-centre with Flora Fountain as the focus. The most visible and obvious area that needs sensitive landscaping is the Tank Square itself. The ingredients are all there. The walkway around the tank still exists, as do some of the other features like lampposts and benches.

One cause for concern is the environmental degradation Dalhousie Square . The base of existing trees is currently of different types and sizes and in extreme state of disrepair. They need to be standardised in detail and treatment. Illumination is another aspect that needs serious consideration as this would go along way in enhancing the visual appeal of the place and extending activities and utility in the night.

The visual pollution is so pronounced that a separate drive is necessary to free up the building surfaces. It is possible to bring in some order and control in the necessity to advertise rather than mindlessly vandalising heritage buildings. A balance has to be struck in what is acceptable in the interests of Dalhousie Square as a heritage precinct and what the civic administrators have to say regarding drop in revenues towards ordering and regularization of hoardings and signage.  It is possible for example to use the beautiful wrought iron arches along the eastern side of the tank, with appropriate detailing to hang standardised sign boards for establishments. The names of the streets, traffic indicators, facility signages plaques in front of all heritage buildings, illuminated map of Dalhousie Square - all this can be thought out and standardised. These are expected to have ready sponsors from the Corporates as has been done by Hong Kong Bank towards improvement of the area in front of the Hong Kong Bank in Dalhousie Square .

Local preservation efforts are on the rise. The campaign to preserve the square is indicative of a larger struggle to preserve India 's colonial architecture and shared heritage. The government has started showing interest in preserving the square and the surrounding area.

Only let me clarify one essential thing before I wind up. The design, development and management of Dalhousie Square cannot be left to chance and cannot be the same as for the other areas of the city. A more careful approach is necessary in order to achieve the vision of Dalhousie Square …a better designed, managed, conserved and an enhanced image of the city centre.

It is therefore urgent to declare this significant area as a heritage precinct under the Heritage Act and a special town centre strategy emphasizing conservation, upgradation, enhancement, improvement should be initiated with design control guidelines for new development responsive to the character of this heritage zone.



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