India as a repository of traditional urbanism is unique. The variety of its built environment – settlements, villages, heritage structures, artifacts, streets, parks, water bodies and precincts of historic, aesthetic, cultural and religious significance is amazing. Unfortunately in the recent decades, in a zeal to develop the modern cities and ‘property’ oriented approach of development, the treasure of our traditional urbanism has often been trampled upon. Borrowed concepts of urban ‘aesthetics’ have overlooked the historic, cultural and symbiotic contents of the traditional urbanism. The consequence is evident in overall decay of the traditional settlements. The explanation for this state of affairs is beyond the hackneyed reasons of population growth, changing life styles, urbanization and the forces of economic growth.
The malaise is much deeper – which includes the lack of awareness, sensitivity and concern for the traditional values, incapacity of institutional framework, non-responsive organisations, flaws in planning, design and development, control process, legal and enforcement inadequacies and deficiencies in implementation and maintenance. The fall out of cut throat business competition and political rivalries are exhibited by indiscriminate pasting of the posters, ugly hoardings, signages and outdoor advertisements which deface and damage the Indian cities across the board.
Although there is not much legislative history of urban conservation in India, the initial efforts can be attributed to Patrick Geddes, who promoted the cause of urban improvement by ‘Conservative Surgery’ about a century ago. As a result of his efforts urban improvement schemes were prepared for more than 30 cities in India, Urban Improvement Acts were enacted in various States/Cities and number of Urban Improvement Trusts were constituted by the Government. However, subsequent conservation efforts focused more upon the buildings and monuments. In 1904, the Central government enacted for the first time, the Ancient Monument Preservation Act, 1904, which was intended “to provide for the preservation of ancient monuments and objects of archaeological, historical or artistic interest” and to prevent the excavation by unauthorised persons of sites of historic interest and value. The Act was applied to ancient monuments which were declared as “protected monuments” and invested the executive with sufficient legal authority in regard to the monuments in private ownership and the Archaeological Survey of India came into being.