Healing heritage, a monumental task

The dilapidated heritage building, which once housed the erstwhile Camara Municipal de Salcete, located at the old market, Margao

Raya Shankhwalker, an innovative Goan architect and honorary secretary to the Goa Heritage Action Group is more than concerned about the fast disappearing significant heritage structures as well as priceless natural heritage in the state. Speaking to NT BUZZ, in an exclusive interview, he advocates for a heritage conservation policy and also suggests other modes to save this fading legacy of Goa


Q: Every time there is a strong monsoon, or may be, even when there is no monsoon, old structures around the state including houses with and without heritage value collapse due to the age factor. Can they be prevented from such permanent damage?

The problem related to the collapse of heritage buildings in particular and old buildings in general during the monsoon is a very serious problem. Most heritage buildings collapse due to damaged roofs that have allowed water to seep through its mud-filled walls over the years. This can be prevented by ensuring that roofs are repaired in a timely manner. The loss of heritage buildings through this mode must be stopped immediately. The lack of a heritage conservation policy in Goa is a key issue that must be addressed as soon as possible. When a listing and grading of heritage buildings all over Goa is carried out the structural stability of each can also be mapped. This data can be used to provide repair assistance where needed. Goa needs to immediately raise a special corpus to fund its heritage conservation initiatives. This can be done by leveraging the fairly large income Goa gets from tourism. The benefits of spending money on conservation will certainly payback through the increased footfalls for conscious and culture sensitive tourism.

Goa’s unique character is defined by its people and its culture. The built heritage of Goa is one of the most important elements of Goa’s identity and it’s our responsibility to preserve it for future generations to enjoy and feel connected to the soul of Goa. The fact that our government has not yet felt the need to frame a comprehensive heritage policy and regulations, hints at the fact that there is little acknowledgment of the fact that its conservation is not fully appreciated. On the other hand, states all over India have now been accepting heritage conservation as an important aspect of state policy and take great pride in these initiatives. Many states in India also promote heritage tourism as a key focus area. Why is Goa not waking up to this matter? Why are its people not demanding protection of their heritage?

Q: The state government is presently facing a financial crunch and fatigue. In such circumstances, how can we expect the government to have heritage preservation on its priority list?

A fund crunch will prevent us from spending on conservation and this is fully appreciated. However, this does not stop us from working on framing and implementing the required policies. This does not cost any additional money. The framing of policy is the first step towards actual preservation. There are many cultural organisations all over the world that can be roped in for conservation funding. Making conservation self-sustaining through internal funding, which eventually pay back through increased business income, is the best way forward. All over the world, there are many good examples where conservation of heritage has led to overall well-being of cities and countryside and also financial returns. Many key European cities rear large tourism benefits through heritage tourism. What would Rome or Madrid be without their heritage structures? We have to wake up and start appreciating the fact that we have a unique built heritage.

Q: Recently, the house of great historian, George Mark Moraes, at Cuncolim, which was in dilapidated condition collapsed. How many such heritage houses in Goa need immediate attention?

Goa has thousands of such structures and its listing is the first step. Without data we will be searching in the dark. To show the way Goa Heritage Action Group did a comprehensive grading and listing of heritage buildings for the city of Panaji and several hundred buildings were listed. It is sad that in spite of this list being available no action was taken by government to notify this list and frame the key policies.

Q: Apart from houses, Goa also has many monuments, promenades, riverfronts, outdoor flights of public stairs, bandstands, gazebos, forts, statues and much more dating back to the Portuguese era, many of which are in bad shape. Should the government also support their restoration?

All these structures are important and need conservation. It is quite true that the government is not expected to spend on all of these. However, we have to ensure that conservation ropes in all levels of government, including local self governing bodies, so as to support these initiatives. Private-Public Partnerships must all be encouraged to bring in private funds into conservation. The answer is not simple but we must make a beginning. I must point out that the government has taken several initiatives for conservation of heritage buildings owned by it, which is quite commendable. However, in the absence of a policy, these works are often handled without industry best practices being employed.

Q: Do you feel that a catalogue of all heritage structures should be prepared either by the government or a dedicated organisation like Goa Heritage Action Group, as a part of documentation or mapping?

This is an enormous task and its must be undertaken through a collaboration between government authorities, experts and organisations like the Goa Heritage Action Group. To make a beginning, a list for structures in Panaji that we have prepared and published in the form of two books could be notified after it is reviewed. Panaji can set an example for the rest of Goa to follow.

Q: Is there a need for more areas in Goa to be declared as conservation zones vis-à-vis the density of heritage structure in these areas?

Way back in 1974, Goa was quite ahead of the curve when it notified some areas in Panaji and Margao as heritage conservation zones with a set of rules governing development within these areas. The results of this action are clearly visible from the fact that these areas now remain better preserved as compared to the rest of the city. In Fontainhas in particular there are already key returns through increased commercial activity, which allows much needed financial benefits to its owners. It is important for Goa to use this avenue already available in the Town and Country Planning Act to notify more heritage zones not only in cities but also in our villages. Most of our villages have incredible character defined by its buildings and priceless natural heritage of paddy fields, forests, backwaters, lakes and fruit bearing orchards. What we have is priceless and we are fast losing time to save it.

Q: There was a talk about a Tourism Master Plan for Goa, which would have heritage conservation as one of its aspects…

Heritage conservation policy ideally should not be part of a tourism plan and it has to be part of our Town and Country Planning Act and the Regional Plan, to be most effective. There is no harm however if the Tourism Master Plan also has an element of heritage conservation policy included in it as this department has a substantial budget that it spends on tourism promotion. A good part of the tourism budget can be spent on heritage conservation as it can reap benefits in return. In Goa we seem to have very skewed approach towards tourism development. We only seem to talk about promotion of tourism when we should actually ensure that Goa, as a tourism offering, is developed in a way that people find reasons to come here. Let’s make it clean, safe, aesthetically appealing and easy to move around, and we may see there is no need for promotion, as word of mouth will drive big footfalls.

Q: How can you, in the capacity of secretary to the Goa Heritage Action Group, use your organisation for preserving all these things in the state, which have significance from the heritage point of view?

The Goa Heritage Action Group was formed 20 years ago to work towards the conservation of Goa’s built, natural and intangible heritage and has been trying to engage with the government relentlessly for framing of regulations and a comprehensive legislation. In 20 years nothing has moved on this subject. We have waited patiently hoping that each successive government will take the lead. Goa is just losing time. The damage now is faster than it was 20 years ago and we are suffering loss of valuable buildings all over Goa at a furious pace. The GHAG can become key facilitator in this process and our assistance is always available to the government. It is important however for the authorities to note that heritage conservation is no longer looked upon as anti-development neither do we look at it that way. Development and conservation have to co-exist and complement each other, and that’s the only way we look at it. We can assist in framing of policy, undertaking the listing, grading of monuments, and becoming facilitators in building awareness. We can also advise in the process of roping in experts in conservation. We also must bring together in a cohesive manner, the actions initiates that are being taken in an isolated manner right now, for collective benefits. Let’s make a beginning and the GHAG and its members are always willing to help.