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Old Dhaka’s Archeological Heritage

Conservation hits a snag over differing survey reports

  • Rajib Kanti Roy
  • 24 September, 2022 12:00 AM
  • Print news
Conservation hits a snag over differing survey reports
The building with archeological value, known as Baro Bari of Zamindar Prasanna Babu, at BK Dash Lane in Old Dhaka has been left uncared for. The photo was taken on Friday. – Reaz ahmed sumon

In the absence of a proper initiative to determine the exact number of Old Dhaka’s archaeological heritage sites, the process of preserving these ancient structures is being hindered.

The Urban Study Group (USG), a private organisation, prepared a list of some 2,200 archaeologically important houses, but the Department of Archeology, following its field-level survey, said it has found only 20–22 houses on the list eligible to enjoy such status.

"We have found only 20-22 buildings on USG’s list as archaeologically significant. They added old buildings indiscriminately to the list without considering the background," said Lovely Yasmin, Director of the Department of Archeology.

On February 2, 2009, RAJUK published a gazette declaring four areas of Old Dhaka as the city’s heritage sites. Some 93 structures and 13 roads were listed as heritage sites and areas in the gazette.

In 2017, the number of heritage sites was reduced to 74, and 13 roads were also excluded from the list.

USG in 2004 prepared a list of about 2,700 heritage buildings in Dhaka. Of these, 2,200 buildings were of grade-1 and 2. The organisation submitted the list to Rajdhani Unnayan Kortripokkho (RAJUK), Dhaka City Corporation, and the Department of Archeology, but all its efforts have gone in vain.

Later in 2012, the voluntary organisation filed a writ petition in the High Court (HC) demanding the preservation of the heritage sites.

While delivering the judgement of the writ in 2018, the HC said that no change or expansion can be made in the draft-listed buildings of the USG until it is determined which buildings are heritage sites and eligible to be preserved and a final list is prepared in this regard.

RAJUK has been directed not to approve the design of the construction of these listed houses or structures.

Local residents are spending time in extreme suffering since the court verdict, being unable to renovate or reconstruct these buildings.

"My house is an old one, but it neither has any historical significance nor aesthetic beauty. Yet it is included in the list. The building is in a dilapidated condition and it needs to be reconstructed," said Jibon Krishna Basak, a resident of BK Das Lane in Farashganj in the capital.

He said he and his family members are living in the house, risking their lives as there is no scope to renovate it due to a court order.

"The government should identify the buildings that truly have archaeological significance and preserve those with the consent of the owners," Basak said, adding that if his house collapses, who will take responsibility?

In 2018, the HC asked the director general of the Department of Archeology to form an advisory committee to examine whether these listed structures are appropriate or not and submit a progress report of their work to the court every three months.

Four years have elapsed since the HC issued the order. The government department has submitted a list of 106 heritage buildings, but it is yet to file the final report with the court. Yasmin said, "We have completed our field survey and are expecting that we will be able to submit the final report by December this year."

The USG, on the other hand, claimed that the Department of Archeology was concealing historical structures in order to avoid responsibility.

The organisation’s Chief Executive Taimur Islam, said, "When we sat down to prepare a list in 2014, a heritage committee was formed and that committee helped prepare the list. Now, why is the Department of Archeology saying this? They don’t want to come out of 30-35 houses."

The USG chief executive opposed the large-scale ban imposed by RAJUK. He stated that it is not just about one or two buildings. Considering its importance, some areas of Old Dhaka should also be brought under the area-wise planned conservation.

 RAJUK Chairman Anisur Rahman Miah said that there is some risk in keeping these buildings without renovation as the houses are old enough. He suggested that reviewing the situation, perilous buildings should get priority while making any decision.

Some experts have raised questions about the survey by both USG and the Department of Archeology.

Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, Professor of the Department of Archeology at Jahangirnagar University, said, "None of these organisations have conducted any scientific archaeological survey. Did they know the names and historical background of the buildings? One organisation is adding all old buildings to their list, while another one is shortening their list only to reduce workload."