Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

Preserving The Heritage Sites

Uttam Maharjan

Nepal boasts four World Heritage Sites - the Kathmandu Valley, Lumbini, Sagarmatha National Park and Chitwan National Park. Although it is often mentioned that there are ten World Heritage Sites, including seven in the Valley (Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath Stupa, Swoyambhunath Stupa, Changu Narayan Temple, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square and Bhaktapur Durbar Square), the fact is that the whole Kathmandu Valley is listed as a single World Heritage Site. The seven heritage sites of the Valley are counted as one.
The Kathmandu Valley and Sagarmatha National Park were listed on the World Heritage List in 1979, while Chitwan National Park was inscribed on the list in 1984. Likewise, Lumbini made it to the list in 1997. Nepal has not since been able to get any of its heritages sites inscribed on the list. The World Heritage Sites of the country carry natural, archaeological, historical and cultural significance.

Historical value
World Heritage Sites signify a remarkable achievement of man. It holds great value for man not only for the present but also for the future. These are the keepsake for our posterity to marvel at. A World Heritage Site could be a place of historical value, a place of natural beauty, a historical structure, ruins of a historical structure, a lake, a forest, a mountain, a city or a settlement.
As of June 2020, there were 1,121 World Heritage Sites in the world - 869 cultural, 213 natural and 39 mixed – scattered over 167 countries. China and Italy are leading the World Heritage List with 55 sites each. The list is maintained by the International World Heritage Programme administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
The UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World's Cultural and National Heritage in November 1972. The convention has been ratified by 193 countries. The UNESCO's mission is aimed, inter alia, at encouraging its member states and their populations to conserve World Heritage Sites in various way, providing emergency assistance for the restoration of World Heritage Sites in Danger, offering technical assistance and professional training for the conservation of World Heritage Sites and supporting member states in their public awareness-raising programmes.
World Heritage Sites are of great importance from a historical, cultural and ecological point of view. They enjoy not only international recognition but also legal protection. The World Heritage Fund also provides financial assistance for the restoration of any World Heritage Site in Danger. Besides, member states can promote tourism activities, which contribute to their economies.
World Heritage Sites are reviewed on a yearly basis. If a World Heritage Site is found not maintained as per the criteria, it may be declared a World Heritage Site in Danger. At this stage, the concerned member state has to work towards restoring the site with financial assistance from the World Heritage Fund, if need be. If it cannot be restored within the stipulated time, the site may be delisted. Once delisted, it will be hard to get the site relisted on the World Heritage Site.
So it behoves member states to maintain their World Heritage Sites by taking effective measures against encroachment, destruction or other undesirable activities. There could also be natural reasons – like earthquakes, floods, landslides, storms or volcanoes - for a World Heritage Site to be declared to be in danger.
The 2015 earthquake damaged or destroyed several heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. The UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, thinking that the heritage sites could not be rebuilt by Nepal, proposed that the Kathmandu Valley be declared a World Heritage Site in Danger. However, the country was able to avoid the unpleasant situation through political acumen and strong reasoning. Now most of the heritage sites have been rebuilt in the Kathmandu Valley.
Nepal faced a predicament again in 2019. The World Heritage Committee proposed again to declare the Kathmandu Valley a World Heritage Site in Danger. The country lobbied hard to maintain the Valley on the World Heritage List. The country presented a strong presentation at the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and was able to survive the storm once again.

Nepal should learn lessons from the action about to be taken by the World Heritage Committee. The World Heritage Sites are the country's historical, cultural and natural gems. Such sites must be preserved at any cost. If possible, other prospective heritage sites should be explored and efforts should be made to have them inscribed on the World Heritage List. For example, Khokana, an old settlement in the Kathmandu Valley, is a good candidate.
The heritage sites in Kathmandu are really in danger. The cityscape has been spoilt with the haphazard construction of buildings and unplanned and rampant urbanisation. Business activities that are going on at the heritage sites have disfigured them. Besides, pollution, traffic movement and other undesirable activities have posed a challenge to the very concept of a World Heritage Site.
The government and other concerned bodies, including stakeholders, need to maintain the sanctity of the country's World Heritage Sites by paying heed to their maintenance and by preventing undesirable activities from taking place there. It should be borne in mind that once any of the heritage sites falls on the danger list, then it will be difficult to take it off the list. After all, a stitch in time saves nine.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.