Taj Building in Nowshera is a case of weak and seriously flawed heritage legislation in NWFP
By Dr Ali Jan
Taj Building is an architectural jewel on the main Grand Trunk Road in Nowshera, NWFP. Built in 1920s, this imposing structure has endured the ravages of time despite lack of any concerted attempts in the past to preserve it. The facade of the three-storey building is highly decorated with floral and vine patterns in intricate stucco. The sweeping round arches and numerous embellished columns represent a charming architectural blend of Roman, Gothic and Oriental. An arched gateway on the side of the building with beautiful jharoka-styled (elevated window balcony) features leads into the main compound. The wooden balconies at the back are also very attractive.
The building was constructed by Khan Bahadur Taj Muhammad Khan OBE MLC of Badrashi Village, Nowshera. He was a famous colonial-era contractor and landlord whose father KB Abdul Hamid Khan had been in the service of the British Empire as well. He was a wealthy man and was particularly fond of racehorses. He used to travel extensively in India and had built several grand mansions for his own comfort. The present National Defence College building in New Delhi, India was also his personal mansion. (See: http://www.ndc.nic.in/history10.asp) Besides this he had also built a residence in Lahore (‘Rose Palace’) which was recently pulled down. His other garden palace at Village Badrashi in Nowshera spreads over several acres.
Khan Bahadur sahib’s son Taj ul Mulk who is a businessman by profession was previously settled in Lahore. He got the custody of the Taj Building and has recently moved to Nowshera. In his absence a court case with the shopkeepers lingered on for many decades which was finally decided in his favour a couple of years ago.
The present owner is a soft-spoken gentleman and a genial host. His ancestral mansion in Nowshera is a living museum containing a range of artifacts such as Persian carpets, furniture, cutlery, arms, animal trophy-heads and so on. Mr Taj ul Mulk has a huge collection of old photos as well. A signed framed photo of the family of the famous Field Marshall ‘Alexander of Tunis’ who had once been a brigade commander of the Nowshera Garrison in 1925 stands on a mantelpiece. He possesses several testimonials by other important British military and civil administrators given to his ancestors. The house is maintained in its original form. It reflects the fine taste of the owner and his commendable esteem for an inheritance which he is determined to preserve.
He realises that protecting the Taj Building is also essential as it is national heritage and also a living monument to his father and grandfather. However, he has apprehensions that once the government officially declares it as a ‘protected heritage monument’ then he might not have the liberty to make alterations in the building like he wishes whilst preserving the facade. Moreover, he fears that even if the government gets it notified it will not be able to sanction enough amount for its conservation which the building deserves. According to his estimate it requires at least five million rupees (which he can personally afford in his own capacity), whereas the government is willing to sanction only a limited sum from its ‘modest’ fund. He reiterates that the building is his bread and butter and therefore he would like to benefit from it commercially whilst preserving it.
Presently, the building’s facade is marred by unattractive advertisement billboards and electricity wires. The wooden windows are in a dilapidated state and in many places the ornate stucco work has crumbled. Fortunately, there is no structural damage to the building hence it shouldn’t be impossible to restore it back to its original form once the badly needed restoration work begins.
The building stands on prime commercial land which is worth a hefty sum in the market. The lower storey is occupied by several shops and a bank. In addition, a movie theatre is also being run inside. The building mafia in connivance with the concerned authorities are the biggest threat to this country’s heritage. Generally speaking, enforcement of heritage legislation is weak and in case of NWFP it is seriously flawed. The Taj building is a case in point. The Taj Building was notified on Sep 26, 2007 by the NWFP Directorate Archaeology under the so-called Antiquities Act 1997. It was done so as per the directive of former governor Lt Gen (R) Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai — a thorough gentleman and a real ‘Frontiersman’ administrator who took pride in our history and therefore believed in preserving heritage. For the record, it is one out of only two buildings (built monuments, as opposed to archaeological sites) notified by the NWFP Archaeology Department in the entire province! Sethi house in Peshawar is the other.
Previously, the building was notified as a protected monument under Federal Antiquities Act of 1975. However, it was de-notified by a special order of the DG Federal Archaeology within a short span. Many argue that it was inherently a wrong precedent with chances of potential misuse, but in this case it was done after receiving firm assurances by the owner to preserve it.
In general, the ongoing federal-provincial tussle over ownership of heritage places in NWFP has created needless bureaucratic confusion and not done any good to the cause of heritage preservation. In the last decade, many important buildings have been demolished and ancient sites have been robbed of their wealth or fallen pray to gross neglect. The source of the conflict is a farcical Provincial Antiquity Act 1997 which is a duplicate copy of the Federal Antiquity Act 1975. Although, there have been attempts at reconciliation in the past between the centre and the province but this matter has remained inconclusive.
Even though, archaeology is on the concurrent list and both federal and provincial governments retain the right to enact legislation for promotion and preservation of archaeology, but under the Constitution of Pakistan repugnant or conflicting laws by provinces have slender legal basis. Law experts argue that if any parallel law exists, the Federal law will prevail and provincial law shall be deemed to have been amended to that extent.
The only way to resolve this impasse conclusively is that the provincial act must be entirely withdrawn and repealed. It can be achieved if personal egos of individuals are set aside in the interest of saving the historic wealth of the province. A new provincial act or ordinance must be introduced from scratch. It ought to be tailored to the specific needs of NWFP and keeping in view its unique cultural and archaeological wealth. There is hardly any reason for adopting the federal act verbatim which in spite of its strengths carries some gross loopholes. For instance, it has a narrow scope with a mainly archaeological bent and is inherently restricted by rigid definitions. Technically speaking, ‘ancient’ in the act is described as anything older than 75 years. Many significant contemporary buildings are left out due to this limitation. A case in point is the British-era Falak Sair (Lansdowne) Cinema in Peshawar. It was a notified national monument under the Federal Act which was brazenly demolished last year. On being challenged in court the owners produced a document (courtesy ill-famed Cantt Board) stating it was 74 years old and not 75! The court case is ongoing. Other criticism of the federal act is that the penalties for violators are too light e.g. fines of Rs 5000.
On the other hand, the Punjab and Sindh provinces enacted their own heritage legislation in 1985 and 1994 respectively. A lot of research, planning, brainpower and groundwork went in their formulation. Various laws in different countries were studied as models. Resultantly, their laws are much evolved and more refined compared to the Federal Act 1975, which is very basic in its existing form and incidentally needs revision too.
Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act 1994 (revised 2002) is a broad ranging act not restricted to the field of archaeology alone. It gives proper legal cover to protect “ancient places and objects of architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, ethnological, anthropological and national interest of the province”. It stipulates constitution of broad based advisory committees comprising conservators, architects, historians, scholars of traditional arts/crafts and civil society members. The Sindh Building Control Ordinance 1979 has a chapter dealing specifically with urban heritage. It deals with declaring such places on basis of “association with significant persons or events in the history of the province… Those embodying distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction” and so on. The penalties are sterner with heavier fines and possible imprisonments for severe violators.
Under these rules, private owners of notified structures are encouraged to preserve their property by grants, easy loans, tax rebates and so on. Respective owners are required to get mandatory NOCs from relevant authority such as culture or archaeology departments for approving any alteration or demolition plans. Moreover, it allows owners of heritage properties to sign preservation agreements with the government. If the owner fails to comply with the order of the government and advisory committee the government can intervene and any expenses incurred for the purpose are recoverable from the owner as arrears of land revenue. Through mere notifications the owner’s right to alter or deface protected heritage may be restricted at the least. In exceptional cases, government may decide to acquire a private property (as was done in NWFP Sethi house, Peshawar — another case in point) under respective Land Acquisition Act.
In the proposed NWFP legislation, all above aspects need to be addressed by the new government. The draft must define a structure for a single heritage authority and lay down rules about ownership of sites to avoid bureaucratic red tape from a holistic preservation point of view. In NWFP, like elsewhere, some of the most important historic buildings are under military control (Ministry of Defence, Federal Govt) such as old forts, messes and piquets. Old institutes like Islamia College comes under education department. Cathedrals, Churches and English cemeteries are looked after by respective dominions (Ministry of Minority Affairs) and shrines and mosques e.g Masjid Mahabat Khan come under Auqaf Department. All these need to be brought under one heritage umbrella at provincial level.
In addition, a ‘Special Premises Act’ is badly needed to apply to such places as certain zones in the walled city of Peshawar. A gradation system for notified structures may be devised. For instance in category A. Restrict the owner’s right to alter or deface protected heritage B. Restoration with owner’s (partial/full) involvement C. Acquiring a property by government (in exceptional cases) and so on.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of various civil society organisations such as Sarhad Conservation Network and Frontier Heritage Trust etc, the NWFP government has in recent months recognised the importance of preserving our rich heritage. An ambitious plan of ‘Documentation/Preservation and Rehabilitation of National Heritage Buildings in NWFP’ is underway. For now, a sum of ten crore rupees have been sanctioned and five districts (Peshawar, Mardan, Bannu, DI Khan, Hazara) have been selected for implementation of this plan. One hopes that the government would plan this task on a sound foundation and grant legal protection to these buildings as well by way of the proposed new legislation as an essential step.
Moreover, involvement of all stakeholders, local experts, civil society and media is necessary to build a wider base of support. Concerns of private owners must be addressed. Additionally, the structure of the proposed ‘Heritage Board/Authority’ needs to be institutionalised and broadened so that it does not become like any other solely government-run (futile) body. Only after streamlining the rules, long-term guidelines and adopting proper procedures could there be any real hope of priceless buildings like the Taj being preserved in the province.