None to look after Old Dhaka’s historic sites

Three architectural relics of Old Dhaka–Bara Katra, Ruplal House and Chhoto Katra (inset)–are in tatters. Declared as National Heritage Sites in 2009, hardly anything has been done to preserve them in three years. Owners’ ignorance about the worth of the sites and shortage of public funds for repairs are turning the sites into ruins. Photo: Anisur Rahman 

The laxity of property owners and lack of government funds for repair and maintenance have brought most of Dhaka’s 103 national heritage sites to the brink of destruction.

After scouting the city for mosques, temples, and buildings more than 100 years old, the authorities in 2009 had granted these sites the status of national heritage.

The Department of Archaeology (DoA) was given the responsibility to protect these sites.

The impressive 17th century archways of Bara Katra and Chhoto Katra are hard to spot among the tangle of adjacent structures.

Bara Katra presently accommodates several commercial establishments. But because of the recent expansion of a madrasa on its premises, part of the edifice is being destroyed.

At Chhoto Katra, there is a medley of shops.

The 19th century pleasure palace Ruplal House is now being used as a vegetables warehouse by Farhad Rahman, 33, a wholesale garlic dealer in Farashganj. He claimed himself to be its owner.

The structure has been defaced at several places to construct some makeshift rooms.

Half of the mansion has been named “Jamal House” and is now being used by the Dhaka City Corporation to house its staff.

Asked about the maintenance of this site, Farhad said so far no government official told him about the importance of his mansion.

The related laws stipulate that the owner of a heritage site must be notified officially about the status of his holding.

Several structures have recently been razed, notably the Radhakrishna Temple on Tipu Sultan Road.

The Raja Rammohan Roy library in Patuatuli has been set to be demolished.

According to the provisions of the Antiquities Act, 1968, and the Building Construction Act, 1952, repair and maintenance of the antiquities must be done by the titleholders themselves. On failure, the government might relieve them of their properties.

Alternately, it can assume the guardianship of private properties and carry out restoration work.

“It would be an injustice if the government imposes the responsibility on the property owners without providing financial aid and technical know-how to them,” architect Taimur Islam, heritage conservationist of Urban Study Group, told The Daily Star.

Garlic dealer Farhad Rahman cannot afford the costly preservation of Ruplal House. He said he was unaware of facing any legal action for causing damage to the property.

Rakhi Roy, assistant director at DoA, attributed their failure in repair and maintenance of the heritage sites to shortage of funds and manpower.

“Only Tk 1 crore was allotted last year for maintenance of sites across Bangladesh. Routine maintenance like cleaning is also included in this, meaning little resources are left for major restoration initiatives.”

The authorities need to acquire private property to be able to carry out major restoration works, she noted.

Asked why her department was not taking legal steps to acquire some properties for maintenance, Rakhi said they did not receive enough administrative support to prepare the required documents.

Taimur Islam, however, said acquiring private property was not imperative as the Antiquities Act grants the government guardianship rights and permits it to take action for preservation.

“Lots of acquisitions will also be costly, especially in cases where an entire neighbourhood requires restoration,” he observed.

Contacted, Nurul Huda, chairman of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), denied any responsibility for protection of these sites.

“Our job was only to prepare the list. We only step in to protect when the Department of Archaeology asks for it,” he mentioned.