Hill Fort Palace, Zenana demolition: Telangana government targeting heritage buildings irks conservationists

Over the years, the state government has demolished several heritage buildings and made attempts to demolish more, like Errum Manzil.

ByAjay Tomar

Published May 04, 2023 | 4:51 PM Updated May 05, 2023 | 3:36 PM

Zenana Enclosure (left), Hill Fort Palace (right). (Twitter)

Since the formation of Telangana in 2014, several heritage buildings have been demolished in Hyderabad — Saifabad Palace, the IAS Officers Association Club building, a part of Amberpet Sarai, and Bela Kaman.

Hill Fort Palace and Zenana Enclosure might soon join the list.

The Telangana High Court is hearing petitions against the demolition of these century-old monuments.

What are conservationists saying?

Not only have city-based heritage conservationists and architects highlighted the Telangana government’s disinterest in protecting these buildings, but they have also alleged that it is randomly picking monuments for restoration.

Hillfort palace and Zenana building demolition: Conservation architects frown upon Telangana government targeting heritage structures

Heritage structures targeted by the Telangana government in the past years. (South First)

“The demolition of a structure notified as a heritage building is contrary to the basic idea of protecting the structure through provisions of the law,” noted heritage conservationist AR Sarat Chandra told South First.

Hyderabad Heritage Trust Founder Deepak Gir is the petitioner in the Hill Fort Palace case.

His trust was also the petitioner when the Telangana High Court ruled against the state government in 2019, halting the demolition of the 150-year-old Errum Manzil so that a new Legislative Assembly complex could come up in its place.

Speaking to South First, Gir said, “The government first removes protection from a heritage structure and then demolishes it. Thereafter, the reinstatement of property takes place. This is against the principle of heritage conservation. You don’t demolish the Taj Mahal and then reconstruct it just because it has some issues. Instead, you fix them.”

Also read: Rejuvenated Bansilalpet stepwell puts focus on restoration 

‘Unimplemented Telangana Heritage Act’

In 2017, the Telangana government, in a first among states in India, passed the Telangana Heritage Act.

This led to the formation of the Telangana State Heritage Authority (TSHA) with a chairman and officials from the Departments of Tourism, Culture, Municipal Administration & Urban Development, Education and Finance as members.

Saifabad Palace

Saifabad Palace. (Twitter)

The TSHA reportedly met in 2021, where it was directed to work for the development of the Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple in the Mulugu district. The temple was, in July 2021, listed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.

In 2019, the Telangana High Court ruled against the state government in the Errum Manzil demolition case and held that the latter was under wrong impression that when it repealed Regulation 13 of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority in 2015, “heritage buildings and sites” lost their status as “protected buildings”.

Later, 137 buildings that were under Regulation 13 were renotified as heritage sites of Hyderabad.

Eying the UNESCO World Heritage City (WHC) recognition, the Telangana government over the past years also restored a few heritage buildings — Bansilalpet stepwell, Moazzam Jahi market, Sardar Mahal — and recently announced the restoration of several others.

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However, conservationists said an impartial attitude from the government towards heritage sites was required for the city to be listed as a WHC.

City-based heritage conservation architect Vasanta Sobha Turaga, who views the Heritage Act as a step in the right direction, said the government was randomly picking monuments for restoration without any process or system in place.

Restored Bansilalpet stepwell inaugurated in Hyderabad

Restored Bansilalpet stepwell inaugurated in Hyderabad

“The 2017 State Heritage Act has not been implemented properly. Hence, you see people or groups moving the high court. In the Act, they have not listed the buildings but only mentioned the process of listing them in the future,” Vasanta told South First.

She wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud this year seeking protection of the British (Hyderabad) Residency and other neglected monuments on a par with the Lucknow Residency.

The Telangana High Court later converted the letter into a PIL and issued notices to the state and Union governments.

Meanwhile, Chandra told South First, “If these respective buildings embody the outstanding universal values, which is the key factor that contributes to recognition as a world heritage site, then the demolition of such heritage buildings will weaken the chances of getting nominated.”

Also Read: Golconda Fort: Hyderabad history is at the mercy of vandals

‘Hill Fort Palace expert panel unqualified’

An expert committee for Hill Fort Palace in the city’s Naubat Pahad area was formed by the National Academy of Construction (NAC) in Hyderabad. It comprised of IIT Hyderabad and NIT Warangal professors.

In its report to the Telangana High Court in April, the panel recommended that the government demolish the existing building and construct a new one.

Owned by the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC), the palace was taken over by the Central government after the annexation of Hyderabad to the Indian Union in 1955.

It was leased out to the Ritz Hotel Company in the same year, which operated it till the late 1990s.

Hillfort palace.

Hill Fort Palace. (Twitter)

However, Deepak Gir alleged that the people on the committee were not qualified to comment on heritage conservation.

“Conservation is a subject in itself, while the NAC is for modern construction. There was only one such person in this panel; all others were not specialists. How are the NAC and people from IIT experts in this matter?” he asked, adding that heritage conservationists were the only people who could comment on the issue.

The Telangana High Court has set a deadline of 27 June for the state government to communicate its decision on whether it intended to reconstruct the building or repurpose it for other uses.

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The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a Delhi-based not-for-profit which also received consultative status in 2007 from UNESCO, released two structural condition assessment reports of the Hill Fort Palace in 2017 and 2022.

The reports stated that the palace was not structurally unsound and could be restored. On visiting the fort, the INTACH team of architects claimed to have found the foundation and substructure-level elements in good condition, only needing minor repairs. However, it recommended several modifications to the walls, beams, pillars, and roofs.

Claiming that the expert committee’s report was not in line with the international standard for heritage conservation, Gir added, “As a conservation architect, one would never come up with the demolition of a monument. Applying their measures of conservation, monuments can be preserved in India including the Taj Mahal.”

About the committee’s technique to “bolster premise that Hill Fort Palace should be demolished”, Gir noted that the former did some material testing.

“As per the tests, it deduced that the bricks are incapable of holding the building and that the steel has corroded. But recently, the British residency, which is 100 years older than Hill Fort Palace was restored,” the heritage conservationist pointed out.

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Where is the heritage department & GHCC?

The TSHA was also mandated to prepare a preliminary list of heritage sites for submission to the government, to accord sanctions and permissions for the development of heritage sites, to facilitate restoration, and to advise the government on heritage matters.

Vasanta questioned why all restoration projects are carried out by the MA&UD, the HMDA or the GHMC.

Amberpet Sarai

Amberpet Sarai (Deccan Archive)

“What is the heritage department doing then? It is not visible at all. There is nobody appointed to the director’s post for a few years. It has no revenue and has not even listed heritage structures,” she alleged.

Complying with the Heritage Act, the Greater Hyderabad Heritage & Precincts Committee (GHHC) reportedly conducted its first meeting in November 2021 under the chairmanship of the GHMC Commissioner.

It ordered the removal of encroachments near 25 protected monuments in the city, apart from the clearing of bushes, upkeep of landscape, and so on.

However, conservationist Sajjad Shahid of INTACH claimed that the committee comprises only of government officials or individuals favoured by it. “Who is going to give an honest opinion as there are no civil society representatives and heritage experts in the committee?” he asked.

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Markers of people’s identity destroyed

The high court is hearing a petition seeking the demolition of the historic Zenana building (Victoria Memorial Hospital), located beside the Telangana High Court.

The petitioner has asked the government to build a multi-level car parking space in its place for the Telangana High Court.

As per reports, the Victoria Memorial Hospital is a listed site (II-B) of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) and cannot be demolished as it enjoys protection according to the High Court’s own ruling on the Errum Manzil demolition.

Zenana building.

Zenana building. ( Syed Akbar/Twitter)

The 19th-century monument also houses a Qutub Shahi-era fountain known as the “dog fountain”, which may also be demolished.

“What will happen to the fountain? Has the ASI listed it? Under ASI rules, once the fountain is dismantled it should not be thrown and conserved in a museum,” conservationist Sajjad Shahid of the INTACH told South First.

Shahid claimed that the Telangana government “does not understand heritage and culture.”

“They have been demolishing century-old heritage structures since they came to power in 2014. These structures are markers of identity for the people of Hyderabad. During Telangana bifurcation, the chief minister said that if the metro passes through the Assembly, it would go over his dead body. The government says something and does something else. No individual or group has the right to take decisions unilaterally without considering the emotions of the citizens,” Shahid said.

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Making heritage relevant to the society

Conservationist Chandra believes that if an informed decision-making mechanism regarding demolition or protection is put in place through the legislature, then everyone should accept it.

“Right now, not many are aware of whether such decision-making processes are being followed. When there is no such mechanism, we will only end up losing our heritage,” Chandra opined.

Mahbub Mansion, after a portion collapsed in 2021 due to rains.

Mahbub Mansion, after a portion collapsed in 2021 due to rains. (Facebook)

Lauding the Telangana government’s recent restoration initiatives, he asserted that if the government is serious about preserving these structures, then there should be rules and regulations to implement that.

“There should be initiatives that are sufficiently funded, in terms of human and financial resources, to get results in a time-bound manner,” Chandra stressed.

Deepak Gir believes that a heritage building cannot be demolished as “it’s original and reconstruction would not qualify as the same standard”.

Stating that if the government has money to build an airport metro, it should also finance the restoration of all these structures, Vasanta said, “Heritage is something that needs to be there after 100 years. The Telangana government is ready to sacrifice it for some short-term goals. When you have grandchildren, you do not kill your grandparents.”

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‘Public fund use must be public knowledge’

INTACH Hyderabad Convenor Anuradha Reddy took her colleague from Haryana to several heritage sites in Hyderabad. “She was wonderstruck and amazed,” Anuradha told South First.

Telangana has more than 350 state-protected monuments, at least eight ASI-protected monuments, and over 130 HMDA-notified monuments.

Anuradha believes Telangana has been gifted with a beautiful “built heritage”, which needs proper and responsible understanding and approach.

“This includes temples, mosques, and dargahs, as well as huge natural heritage sites like hills and rocks that are being destroyed at a distressing rate,” she pointed out.

Anuradha said that these heritage sites needed to be responsibly handed.

“Before any work starts, these structures need documentation — about their current status, what work will be undertaken, and the cost involved. Most important is the selection of the person or organisation that will be taking up conservation work,” she explained.

Noting that public monuments protected using public funds must be public knowledge, Anuradha asserted that the conservation approach did not need to be a speedy one.

“Speedy and careless renovation by inexperienced persons is not what our built heritage deserves. This kind of work is not very fast and one has to be very committed to using proper materials so that result is recognised by world-famous organisations,” she said, adding that the Qutub Shahi tombs and British Residency have been very well handled by organisations selected to renovate them.