Posted by: lrrp | October 7, 2004

Galle Fort residents set for battle By Frances Bulathsinghala

As residents of the Galle Fort region get ready to fight the Archaeology Department’s declaration that houses in the fort area be declared monuments-restricting any modern renovations- the Archaeological Department’s Additional Director General, Keerthi Vishwanath to whom more than 200 residents in the Galle fort area handed over a petition, said yesterday he was ignorant of the matter.

“I do not know anything. I just accepted the document. All I know is that we have received serious objections by the residents regarding the declaration of the fort area as a protected site. We have received 200 objections,” Keerthi Vishwanath, the Archaeology Department’s Additional Director General told The Sunday Times. In the face of the refusal by the Archaeology Department’s Director General, to meet the residents, Mr. Vishwanath had been the official who had met the desperate residents of the Galle Fort region who wanted to protect their houses against the new regulations to be introduced by the Archaeology Department and the Ministry of Culture.

A document sent by the Director General of Archaeology on 16/09/2004 to the Galle Fort residents, said that the UNESCO was ‘on the verge of de-listing the Galle Fort as a world heritage’ site because of the modernised changes being made to the buildings. However, the Additional Director when asked for details regarding the issue told The Sunday Times there was no truth in it, but when asked for the ‘truth’ merely said that he handled only administration matters.

Both the Director General and the Deputy Director General, Senarath Dissanayake was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Sunday Times. According to the declaration, under the ‘care, protection and maintaining of heritage buildings and monuments in Galle Fort’, no modifications, repairs or changes of materials to any of the buildings will be permitted without a written approval from the UDA and the Department of Archaeology. According to residents there would be restrictions even on the colours they paint their walls with.

“We are forced to take legal action to protect our rights. Because if all the buildings in the Fort region are declared as monuments we will lose our right completely. This will affect 147 houses. We have received a consensus from the residents to challenge the gazette in courts and we have received offers for legal consultancy from many lawyers following an appeal made by us,” says Mahendra Jayasinghe, Secretary of the Galle Fort old house owners Association.

Mr. Jayasinghe states that there has been no response from the Cultural Affairs Minister regarding discussions with the house owners, although the Prime Minister’s Office last week had directed the Galle District Secretary to immediately facilitate a meeting with the residents and the Cultural Affairs and National Heritage Minister to discuss the published gazette.

“We have been desperately trying to get in touch with any responsible authority in the Archaeology Department after we got to know of the gazette notification issued on August 27. We were not informed about the gazette. None of the authorities made any attempt to get in touch with us. It was only September 4 that we were alerted about the gazette notification by a senior resident who had seen the announcement. We are perturbed as the declaration of the Galle Fort vicinity prohibits us from selling our houses and forbids any renovation unless we go back in time architecturally. This means (covering clauses 22 to 25 of the Antiquities Ordinance) no modern renovations would be allowed and the Archaeology department would have full rights over the territory”, he explains.

“The violation of these regulations would be an offence where bail would not be granted,” said Nazar Hussain, Assistant Secretary of the Old House Owners Association in Galle Fort (the organisation is also known as the Galle Fort Isuru Welfare Association). Mr. Hussain blamed the Archaeology Department for sleeping on the job and the Galle Heritage Foundation of politicisation.

“The Galle Fort region was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978. Constructions have been going on uninterrupted from then to now by the people in the region. It seems unclear what the fate of these people would be with the new declaration of the houses around the Fort region,” Mr. Hussain said. Quoting clause 18 of the Antiquities Ordinance, Mr. Hussain further stated that it was only if the monument was neglected or suffered injudicious treatment that the monument should be protected. “It is under this clause that we stand justified. All the Galle Fort residences have been maintained well. One of our other main worries is that we will lose our privacy where we would be asked to show our premises to tourists as it is now declared as a ‘monument’.

“Has the world heritage foundation and the archaeology department been sleeping from 1978 to now?” asks an angry Mr. Hussain. “We have sent appeals to the Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage, Vijitha Herath who has up to date not acknowledged our letter or given us an appointment. We have also had to beg for an appointment with the Archaelogy Director General and was not successful. Instead we were informed by him that we should meet the Additional Director General who now says that he is not aware of the subject,” Mr. Hussain said.

Meanwhile, the District Secretary of the Galle District, Hewa Vitharana who is also the Vice President of the Galle Heritage Foundation when contacted, said that the decision to declare the Galle Fort region was taken ‘entirely by the Cultural Ministry’. “The people living
around the Galle Fort region have always been aware that it is their duty to protect their houses as they are important as a cultural monuments. The Galle Heritage Foundation had seen to it that the houses were protected and their old infrastructure retained as much as possible”, Mr. Hewa Vitharana said.

According to him no resident could carry out any renovations without the permission of a special committee representing the Galle Heritage Foundation. Mr. Vitharana who was handed over a petition by residents in Galle Fort said that he had referred the matter to the Cultural Ministry but had not received any response.

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