Measures in Place to Protect Himachal Heritage Buildings Against Fire: Centre

New Delhi: The union government has said that it was taking appropriate measures to contain fire incidents which are destroying heritage buildings in Himachal Pradesh.

Replying to a starred question, Minister of State for Culture Dr. Mahesh Sharma let the Rajya Sabha know that the Archeological Survey of India(ASI) is taking appropriate measures to protect heritage buildings in Himachal against fire hazards.

“There is no apparent threat to these centrally protected monuments or sites to catch fire. However, as some of these monuments are largely made of wood, and some others have wooden components in their architectural schemes, the ASI has procured water pressure and carbon dioxide type fire extinguishers,” Sharma said.

The question was asked by Congress Party’s Rajya Sabha MP Mrs Viplove Thakur from Dharamsala on 4th December. She wanted to know what precautionary steps the government was taking to tackle fire emergencies with regard to heritage buildings in Himachal.

The minister said the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, which has its interior largely made of wood, has an effective fire-fighting system in place since colonial times and is still working satisfactorily.

There are forty Centrally protected monuments and sites declared as of national importance under the jurisdiction of ASI in Himachal Pradesh. There are 327 heritage buildings notified in the year 2003 and further 88 heritage buildings in the year 2011 were notified by the state government, the minister informed the House.

File Photo by Amit: The Landmark Gorton Castle Shimla in flames

Many of these properties are falling to the scourge of fire every year, which makes no distinction of the precious heritage in the state. The response of the government has essentially been post-disaster and often no more than tokenism of compensation announcements.

On November 2 this year, Minto Court , situated near Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, was reduced to ashes by a fire. It housed the office of Project Deepak of Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

A devastating fire swept through the 109-year old Gorton Castle on January 28 this year.  Constructed in Neo-Gothic style, the building was one of the most magnificent masterpieces of architecture in the hill capital.

Elsewhere in Himachal, on May 3, 2011, a heritage railway station of Kandaghat was gutted in a blaze that broke out around mid-night and reduced everything to ashes by the morning, including the Neals Token Instrument System, a vintage communication and track-control system which was still in use. Kalka-Shimla rail was chosen by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 2008 and has not remained incident free since then.

A raging fire wiped out two-third of Malana, one of the oldest villages in Kullu valley in in January 2008.

Shimla alone has the dubious distinction of having lost heritage buildings one after another to fire. To name a few, the old Snowdon Building, Wildflower Hall, Kennedy House, Peter Hoff, the parts of Artrac Command Headquarters, and the US Club Army Mess. And the list is growing.

Torrentium, named after British Major General R Torrens and housed girls and boys hostel of Ayrcliff High School for Girls and Bishop Cotton School, was gutted in fire in 1983.

Earlier in 1946 a devastating fire destroyed most of Shimla’s iconic school Chelsea, killing a ten year old girl and inflicting a loss of Rs 10 lakh – a huge sum those days.

Peter Hoff, the original residence of Viceroy, was gutted in fire in 1981. The building served as Raj Bhawan before it was shifted to Barnes Court. This building also served as the Punjab High Court after partition and the Nathu Ram Godse trial in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case was held in the old Peter Hoff building

Peliti’s Grand Hotel, which served as residence of British Commanders in Chief of Indian Army, was destroyed by a fire in 1922. It re-built version now serves as guest house of the government.

The only heritage building that stands out against this dismal backdrop is the Railway Board building in Shimla which was designed to be structurally fire resistant and was unaffected by the fire which broke out on February 10, 2001. This unique colonial style cast iron and steel structure was wrought in 1896 by Bombay based Richardson and Cruddas. Its only match in South Asia is Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Pradeep Rana has worked for over 16 years with The Times Of India, PTI, and Indian Express before joining Japanese channel NHK World as South Asia correspondent. At Times of India he has been awarded for best medical reporting. Later, he moved to US Embassy in Delhi as Media Analyst. He has been editor of a medical book and magazines on travel, pets, and technology. A wildlife and nature enthusiast, well travelled in Himachal, Uttarakhand and North East.

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