Many politicians and bureaucrats are hostile towards those who want to protect the nation's built heritage. This is partly understandable, considering they tend to believe that the prime need is for "development" in urban areas, given the burgeoning populations and shortage of amenities. However, they need to introspect on the true "worth" of these buildings.

The current case of Crawford Market in Mumbai is somewhat different due to considerations other than such customary hostility. In most cases, the proponents of a project make out a strong case for redevelopment whereas here, they seem to be defensive, almost apologetic about it. Last September, after a two-minute discussion, the city's municipal corporation passed a proposal to pull down the elegant 139-year-old market and erect a high-rise in its place. This was only a fortnight after the corporation had signed a Rs.42 lakhs contract with the conservation expert Abha Narain Lambah to restore the structure and its surrounds. The corporation had even paid her a first tranche of Rs.14 lakhs.

There was a public furore, but the dominant Shiv Sena, and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, refused to allow a discussion on March 10 in the corporation. The Congress, forever supine, stayed out of the fray, leaving only the motley members of the Nationalist Congress Party, Samajwadi Party and Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (headed by Raj Thackeray, which has made headlines for its assaults on migrants) to protest. Even the well-meaning mayor Dr Shubha Raul, who hails from the Sena, was over-ruled in this regard.

According to information garnered by the Right to Information activist, Shailesh Gandhi, the builder singled out for this largesse, RNA, stands to make a little over Rs.1000 crores on the redevelopment by rehousing the stall owners and selling the balance on the open market. RNA is a leading Mumbai construction firm that has built nearly 16 million sq ft of built-up space in the past and is adding another 25 million, including a Special Economic Zone. One would not imagine that such builders would have any concern for the preservation of urban heritage.

RNA stands to make a little over Rs.1000 crores on the redevelopment of the 139-year-old Crawford Market by rehousing the stall owners and selling the balance on the open market. The corporation will get a measly Rs.71 crores worth of built-up space in the new complex.

 •  Is remaking Mumbai sustainable?
 •  A new twist to land grabs

In the new complex that RNA will build, the corporation will get only a measly Rs.71 crores worth of built-up space. There's little doubt that in this specific case, factors other than the need for commercial space weighed heavily on the corporators' minds. Apart from other problems, the high-rise will alter the pleasurable experience of shopping for fruits and vegetables, among other groceries - or even strolling, considering that it's a major tourist attraction - on the ground floor, with easy access from the street from several sides.

Sir Arthur Crawford, a dynamic Governor, had commissioned a competition to build this market. William Emerson, who later built the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, that city's iconic landmark, won that contest. Emerson designed the market according respect to the sentiments of the cosmopolitan city population. The former beef and fish sections were kept to the back, so that any offensive odours would waft away instead of assailing visitors as they entered. There was a fountain in the centre. As thousands of Mumbaikars of all ages will testify, visiting Crawford Market is always an event to savour, despite the increasing bustle of that part of South Mumbai. There could well be a parallel with Moore's Market in Chennai, which mysteriously burnt down some years ago and has now been rebuilt by the railways.

In the case of Crawford Market, it's entirely likely that the builder has influenced the corporators, since they have chosen not to justify their blatant clamp-down on any discussion concerning this building. Some years ago, under the auspices of the Tatas, there was a nation-wide competition on redesigning the market, keeping its heritage value in mind even while allowing expansion. It was won by the Kotharis, an architectural firm from Delhi, but for reasons best known to the corporation, this plan was allowed to die an unnatural death.

The corporation's restoration project with Lambah now seems headed the same way. In fact, Lambah said she learnt about the proposal to hand over the market to a builder from newspapers. What about the money that the corporation has already given her? Additional Municipal Commissioner Kishor Gajhiye said that he would have to check about Lambah's dues. "We were ready with a plan and wanted to speak in the general body meeting [of the corporation], but we were not allowed," he said.

Activists in Mumbai like Jamsheed Kanga, and non-government organisations such as AGNI and CitiSpace are now seeking legal advice on how to make a last-ditch stand against the imminent desecration of this popular monument.

Under the pretext of 'modernising' a building and providing more space, there could be no end to the destruction of a city's heritage buildings. In Mumbai, a vice-chancellor without any scruples could easily argue that the University of Mumbai's campus in Fort has lawns that are not only superfluous but also command FSI (floor-space index or FAR, floor-area ratio, acronyms for the permitted height of a building in relation to its footprint). In one of the most congested areas of the central business district, an increase in height in any of the structures would exert tremendous pressure on the roads and other civic amenities.

Mumbai has a string of heritage buildings, which the author Christopher London calls "Bombay Gothic" in his 2002 book of that name. The former Victoria Terminus, now renamed like many other public sites after the Maratha emperor Chhatrapati Shivaji, has been crowned a World Heritage Monument by UNESCO but experts believe that this tag should go to the cluster of public buildings within the Fort precinct, which include the General Post Office, High Court and university buildings. And by no means least, irony of ironies, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation building itself!

In his recent book, titled Heritage & Environment: An Indian Diary (Urban Development Research Institute, Mumbai, 2007), Shyam Chainani, who has single-handedly been responsible for the inclusion of laws relating to heritage buildings in the city's and country's statute books, details instance after instance of facing a stone wall - quite literally - when making out a case for preservation. A classic case was the Old Yacht Club building, located directly across the Gateway of India in Mumbai. After India's independence, the Tata group wanted to acquire it and build a hotel in its place. The plan fell through when the governor general of that time, Lord Mountbatten, wrote to the Tatas, asking that it be preserved. It was saved from such a fate, only to be later handed over in the 1950s, inexplicably, to the Department of Atomic Energy.

Chainani had to run the gauntlet of several nuclear energy bosses who were adamant about demolishing the club and erecting a high-rise in its place. Dr Raja Ramanna, a senior member of the Atomic Energy Commission, told him that the building was ugly and collapsing and that Dr Homi Bhabha, widely regarded as the father of India's nuclear programme, had planned a skyscraper complex there. Dr Homi Sethna, who chaired the Commission at the time, believed that the corporation had no funds even to remove slums, and therefore could hardly be expected to preserve old structures. Later, V Shankar from the Prime Minister's Office asked why it should be preserved, as it was a British building. Chainani's riposte was that by the same token, Shankar should not be working out of South Block, which was designed for the Raj by Sir Edwin Lutyens, often described as the greatest British architect.

Kotachi wadi is an Christian precinct in the heart of Girgaum, one of the most densely populated areas of Mumbai. Vernacular architecture still survives in tiny pockets in the city. (Picture credit: Chirodeep Choudhuri).

There's a widely held belief that concern for protecting heritage is an elitist preoccupation that reeks of subservience to our former colonial masters. It's the latter conviction that has been responsible in Mumbai and many other cities for the pointless moves to remove statues of Raj rulers and rename sites and buildings. Yet public memory, in such cases, can be unproverbially very long. No one uses the official name for Crawford Market, which is Jyotiba Phule - not even the chauvinist corporators belonging to the Shiv Sena. The only reason that Victoria Terminus (VT) is increasingly known as CST is because both acronyms are short and easy to remember. The commercial epicentre of the Fort precinct is still called Flora Fountain and not Hutatma Chowk, a name coined in memory of those who died during the struggle to carve Maharashtra as a separate state. The crowning irony is that the area where the equestrian statue of King Edward VII once stood is still known as Kala Ghoda and, indeed, has an ever-burgeoning cultural festival in its name every year!

There is no need for people to feel that old monuments - whether built by the British or by Mughal rulers or the kings before them - are relics of a past that ought to be obliterated. They are intrinsically part of this great country's diverse history and ought to be recognised as such, and their presence is in no way a justification of the many exploitative acts of omission and commission that almost all rulers were guilty of. We ought to remember that India's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, was occupied by the Jats who attacked Agra in the 18th century. They camped within the monument and burnt hay to keep themselves warm!

The British were not much better. The following century, the Taj was used for open-air "frolics" and balls were held on the marble terrace in front of the main door. The mosques on either side of the "miracle in marble" were rented out to honeymooning couples. Lord Curzon, who set up the Archaeological Survey, records how picnics were held in the gardens: "It was not an uncommon thing for the revellers to arm themselves with hammer and chisel, with which they whiled away the afternoon by chipping out fragments of agate and carnelian from the cenotaphs of the Emperor and his lamented Queen."

Indeed, Lord William Bentinck, the first Governor General of India, announced that the best Mughal monuments in Agra and Delhi would be stripped and shipped to London, to be sold as fragments. Shah Jahan's pavilions in the Red Fort were exported in this manner. By a stroke of luck, just as plans were made to dismantle the Taj, news came from London that the first auction had proved a failure and the monument was literally saved from the demolition squad by the skin of its teeth.

This only shows that no single country has in the past demonstrated its concern for monuments belonging to a previous regime and it's only in the last century or less that urban planners all over the world have recognised that these are an integral part of the past, the destruction of which will only deprive succeeding generations of a vital link to history. By contrast, think of brand new cities or precincts such as the new areas of Dubai or Shanghai. They mark a rupture with those countries' cultures and, however efficient they may prove for conducting global businesses, will be off the tourist map. Tourism is now the world's largest industry, growing at a scorching pace. If every city ends up looking like every other, the world will be a much sadder place for it.