NEGLIGENCE in conserving heritage sites may result in the loss of archaeological history of the country unless the government takes early measures in this regard. The negligence is so pervasive that the authorities concerned, despite directives from the High Court in 2018, do not have a comprehensive list of heritage sites. The sites that are listed are not well conserved and the ones that are restored have lost their aesthetic and historic value because of faulty and compromised techniques of restoration. A photograph that New Age published on Saturday shows the decaying condition of heritage buildings at Panam Nagar of Sonargaon in Narayanganj. In the historic city of Dhaka, according to the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, there are 74 heritage sites, but only a handful of them are protected. Many of the privately-owned sites are partially or fully demolished by the owners. The amendment to the Bangladesh National Building Code to reduce the buffer zone of heritage sites and to relax height limits has created the scope for real estate development near heritage sites. Even government offices have used heritage sites, as evidenced in the case of Mangalbas at Sutrapur which is now an office of fire service. The government lacks archaeologically informed policy and commitment to protecting the cultural past.
The Antiquities Act 1968 stipulates the government will recognise century-old buildings, monuments and sites with historic, architectural and cultural significance as heritage sites and will conserve them. As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention 1972, Bangladesh is obliged to conserve these sites keeping to global standards. There are also several High Court directives that have asked the authorities to update the lists, conserve the sites and submit periodic reports to the court. The government, the Archaeology Department and Rajuk for that matter, has failed to discharge its legally defined responsibilities. Conservation experts blame corruption, lack of expertise, owners’ unwillingness and business interest of the politically influential quarters for this failure. A nexus of government officials, politically influential people and property developers demolish heritage sites. The nexus is particularly active in Old Town of Dhaka. A significant lack of expertise in restoration is also highlighted by experts. They have brought allegations of illegal trade of archaeological artefacts. In addition, the loopholes in the law prevent authorities from protecting privately owned sites as the law does not permit any action without the consent of the owner.
In order to prevent further destruction of the heritage buildings, the archaeology department must expedite the enlistment process. The government should immediately introduce the transfer of development right, as often recommended, so that private owners are compensated enough to cooperate with restoration initiatives. The government must also strictly enforce the laws and regulations to stop structure within 250 metres of heritage buildings. The government must act knowing that the preservation of heritage sites is not only foundational to building a historically informed nation, if conserved properly, it could also be economically beneficial by way of positively impacting the tourism industry.
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