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She threads the past with the present
With less than one per cent of heritage buildings protected in India, Olga Chepelianskaia suggests community involvement to keep legacy alive. By Vaibhav Ratra
With urbanisation on the rise, there are multiple challenges that the government faces, including spatial distribution of people and resources, along with climate change and land use and consumption of land. Heritage preservation, therefore, gets compromised in the tussle for survival. But Olga Chepelianskaia, consultant to the United Nations and INTACH on urban climate resilience, has a solution. She suggests the concept of a “living heritage” where remnants of the past are coopted into modern aspirations and carried forward.
Olga has worked on sustainable and climate resilient urban development in Asian and European cities for about 10 years. After a full time engagement with the French government and the United Nations, she became an independent consultant and now advises international institutions and governments on urban policies and urban finance. Her passion for ancient architecture inspired her to launch the Indian Built Heritage: Socio-Economic Asset of Sustainable Urban Development programme within INTACH.
She said, “The vision behind talking about how heritage contributes to sustainable urban development in India is to shift the perception of heritage. Planners and decision makers often look at built heritage monuments as an object for conservation and not as an asset for socio-economic and environmentally sustainable development. I emphasised on the value built heritage monuments brings to the table when it comes to meeting India’s urban development priorities such as poverty reduction, climate resilience or access to basic services.”
She is taken back at the condition of India’s living heritage areas which tend to the among most vulnerables, and prone to poverty in Indian cities. She stated, “In India less than one per cent of heritage buildings are protected and these are hardly considered by the municipal governments when developing various city plans. Protection is required; however the nature of this protection is the key point. Quality of life in a city can be enhanced through a combination of adaptive reuse, better access and uplift of heritage areas, which will result in the enlargement of economic opportunities.”
In her perspective, “We can hardly draw parallels between India and European countries in terms of sustainable urban development but European heritage and sustainable urban development walk hand in hand and jointly offer a unique quality of life. The historic core in European cities constitutes its identity of the city and provides enhanced quality of life through spaces full of life: beautified river fronts, pedestrian or semi-pedestrian streets hosting recreational spaces, squares based on ancient city planning, multiple use areas and so on. In India we nearly don't have such a holistic approach. There are few attempts, such as in Pondicherry where the municipality has cooperated with the European commission, INTACH and two European cities with the objective of achieving urban and economic development through heritage preservation. As a result, property value increased significantly within the heritage precinct, tourism nearly doubled after the intervention and a large number of jobs were generated.”
She asserted, “A number of industries in Agra were shut down following the 1997 Supreme Court Decision to prevent Taj Mahal from pollution related damages. However, this step needed to be accompanied by a well thought strategy of requalification of local people. A number of people live in Tajganj — an area adjacent to Taj Mahal, hosting a number of non- protected heritage buildings -- this area could well be explored and made more attractive for tourists by offering them an integrated heritage experience of homestays, home restaurants, heritage walks. Of course, such a strategy can only go hand-in-hand with the provision of basic services, which in any case is a responsibility of the municipal government.”
She mentioned that for tourists, most meaningful heritage experience is a holistic experience which not only includes seeing a monument, but also observing life around it, admiring the connection between the past as well as the present and wandering through the city. She added "We aim at giving an experience of unique harmony between the heritage monuments and modern architecture; between tangible and intangible aspects of our history.”
She felt that “individual contribution can make a huge difference in sustainable planning and design around heritage zones. At present, it is common to hear from residents that heritage does not have any value in their daily life but I am trying to find out a way to reconnect people with the present manifestation of their past.”
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