Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Bartle Frere’s destruction of the Ramparts was no doubt a work of the greatest public utility, but how much more we should appreciate it if he had preserved at least one of the Gates with a section of the ramparts, which if they were never assailed gave to the citizens a feeling of security which was the foundation of its prosperity? The only visible sign of these historic Ramparts is the fragment of wall which was part of St George’s bastion—such a poor fragment that few notice it.
— British Politician Sir Stanley Reed, 1920.
Where does Mumbai’s most common office address lie? The Bombay Fort, built by the British East India Company, was completed in 1716. It was necessitated by threats felt from Portuguese and French forces. Stretching approximately from Victoria Terminus in the north to Lion Gate in the south, the fort was demolished in the 1860s when threats ceased and construction swapped ranks with security on the priority list. While sections of Bombay Castle still exist in the naval compound of INS Angre, the only remnant of this monolith, present for leisurely public viewing, is a “poor fragment” of a wall from Fort George (a part of Bombay Fort) outlining St George’s Hospital compound on P D’ Mello Road.
Why then do “few notice it”? Because the approximately 12 feet high black stone wall is almost entirely lined by slums, and because next to it stands a public toilet erected by the BMC. Having restored it four years ago, the Department Of Archaeology And Museums, which has an office next to the structure, has hung a sign declaring the monument “protected” and imposing “fine” and “imprisonment” on one who defies this, inside the compound. The only sign present for passersby on the outside, however, reads: “Swachchta Mein Hi Prabhutva Hai… Brihanmumbai Municipal Council… Ujjwal Shauchalya.”
When the slums housing immigrants from Maharashtra and other states came up, is something even Vijay Balamvar, assistant municipal commissioner A Ward—whose jurisdiction the area comes under—cannot place. “But they will be cleared in 20 days. The BMC has given them land,” he says. Yet Paniti, a slum-dweller therein, complains, “Our houses will now be one hour away, though our places of work are still here.” This clearing is finally taking place as a road expansion plan allied with a railway terminal construction in the locality. The shauchalya, on the other hand, has for long drawn the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee’s ire. “The committee has advised that not just this toilet, but toilets on Bhatia Baug, along Wilson College’s wall and on Churchgate Street crossing be demolished, but the BMC has yet to take action,” says Sharda Dwivedi, a member of this committee whose writings on the Fort area’s heritage and architecture are renowned. “One can construct toilets away from heritage structures too. Heritage, our collective inheritance, needs to be preserved.”
But even if the slums and toilet go, would this render the place fit to lift its burden of history? “We’re planning to set up a plaque explaining the site’s past and signage to direct people to it,” lets in R N Hegde, director, Department of Archaeology. “Pushing the BMC to remove slums and toilets would be a waste of energy. We’d rather concentrate on positive activity.” Activity such as the BMC’s intended beautification of the historic area, as (according to Balamvar), “with small things like flower beds on dividers”. Yet two queries, raised by Dwivedi, remain unanswered at the end of this, as any, government rhetoric: “Will all this actually happen? When?”
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/hrub