Bengaluru’s Balabrooie guest house controversy highlights lack of heritage protection law

The Karnataka High Court on Thursday restrained the state government from converting the iconic 170-year-old bungalow and gardens into a ‘Constitution Club’.
Balabrooie guest house, Bengaluru
Balabrooie guest house, Bengaluru
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Tagore wrote poems sitting in its rooms. Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sir M Visvesvaraya walked its halls. An obvious historical gem, but Bengaluru’s Balabrooie Guest House seems to be a magnet for controversy. On Thursday, October 7, heritage and environmental citizen groups in the city breathed a sigh of relief after the Karnataka High Court restrained the state government from converting the iconic bungalow and gardens into a ‘Constitution Club’, adding that status quo should be maintained and trees shouldn’t be felled.

Balabrooie is no stranger to disputes. In 2014, citizens groups in the city rallied together and managed to stop a plan to demolish portions of the guest house. Meera Iyer, convener, INTACH Bangalore, reveals that there was a similar proposal as far back as the 1970s to demolish the bungalow.

The 170-year-old bungalow was named by John Garret, a missionary from Ballabrooie in the Isle of Man, who started a printing press in Bangalore and later went on to set up Central College. His family sold it to the Mysore government after which it became a Dewan’s residence.

Apart from Tagore, Nehru, Visvesvaraya and Gandhi, other luminaries such as KC Reddy, the first Chief Minister of Mysore State, Chief Ministers BD Jatti, S Nijalingappa, Devaraj Urs and SR Bommai have also stayed there.

The surrounding gardens are an ecosystem in themselves. A team of experts, including former secretary of the Forest and Environmental Department Dr AN Yellappa Reddy and the Bangalore Environmental Trust team, recently conducted a survey at the location and found that the 3-acre property is home to trees that are more than seven decades old, including keystone species like banyan, mahua and cycas, the living fossil, a tree which is almost a century old. While the roots of these trees fan out to form a natural water absorption system, 50 rare bird species have been documented here by ornithologist M Sridhar.

“Some of the heritage trees there were handpicked and planted by former Karnataka CM Devaraj Urs. It’s an excellent habitat for birds to nest,” explains Dr Reddy.

The bungalow was recently used as a COVID-19 control room and is currently a guest house.

Seemingly straightforward, so why the controversy? The answer is simple and unfortunate. Because of the absence of a proper heritage protection law.

Citizens groups in Bengaluru say that over the years they had involved experts to formulate a charter for this and even presented it to the state government, but to no avail.

The Bangalore Urban Arts Commission (BUAC), which was set up to monitor the city’s heritage buildings, was functional until 2001. It was reportedly dissolved for opposing the then government’s proposal to build Vikas Soudha.

In April 2020, the Karnataka government passed the Zonal Regulations (Amendment), 2020 (ZRA), under which the BUAC would be revived, and help in protecting heritage buildings and natural features.

INTACH’s Meera Iyer is optimistic. “We have been writing to and have met officials, including the chief secretary, even last May. Our most recent meeting with the chief secretary, additional chief secretary (Urban Development Department) Rakesh Singh and Bangalore Development Authority Commissioner Rajesh Gowda along with our State Convenor Dr Ravindra (former chief secretary) happened two weeks ago. We have been told that the files have moved on this,” she explains.

Priya Chetty Rajagopal, founder of Heritage Beku, which has been at the forefront of conserving and preserving heritage in Bengaluru, points out that the BUAC can function effectively only if there is proper representation. “The committee should not just consist of government officials. Citizens and experts from the general public must be involved, otherwise this will not benefit Bengaluru,” she says.

The proverbial clock is ticking. A 2015 INTACH resurvey of 823 iconic buildings that had been listed in 1985 found that only 354 were still standing.

And that was over six years ago.

“Authorities need to do something pronto. We cannot be carrying concrete as a heritage forward,” say Priya.

Supriya Unni Nair is a Bengaluru-based independent writer and a former business journalist.

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