Dr Nilina Deb Lal
Dr Nilina Deb Lal

Women's Day: Dr Nilina Deb Lal on Kolkata's heritage conservation

On International Women’s Day, we spoke to Nilina to learn about The Roxburgh Project that she is currently working on, and her experience working in a male-dominated profession.

The love for her city began growing since Nilina Deb Lal’s days in school. An architect, historian and activist, Nilina focuses on conservation and the role of heritage in assuring a sustainable future for the urban environment. Nilina tells us that it was from the ’90s that people began talking about conservation. “Since I was already interested in it, I thought of being an active part of it,” she says. On International Women’s Day, we spoke to Nilina to learn about The Roxburgh Project that she is currently working on, and her experience working in a male-dominated profession. Excerpts:

Q

You are currently working on The Roxburgh Project at the AJC Bose Botanic Garden...

A

This project is a long-running interest — almost two decades now. A Scottish friend who was visiting the city took me there first to see the building. He took me because there’s a deep connection between Scotland and our botanical history. We were trying give a facelift to the building by sprucing up the garden. This effort to find a way to restore these buildings and give them a new life began. The three buildings there are the William Roxburgh House, the Old Herbarium and Library and the Old Seed Store. We are restoring these buildings to make them a destination within the garden for the visitors. Also, museums and conference facilities, promoting it as a leading cultural, educational and leisure destination, are in the planning stage, which might help generate revenues for the garden in the long run.

Personally, it has become an important part of my life because I can see that it is a unique resource. After all, it’s an open space with many educational attributes. It’s culturally and historically important. It is not utilised or exploited to its fullest potential.

The Roxburgh Project
The Roxburgh Project
Q

Kolkata has many legacy buildings. What can be done to preserve these buildings?

A

My idea of individual building conservation has evolved with time. I look at heritage as resources in the context of climate change, sustainability, culture, leisure, and other attributes.

There is a certain amount of embodied energy in these buildings. From the climate change and sustainability point of view, we didn’t think of these things. If you look at the statistics for Kolkata, the construction sector is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. That’s not necessarily the case in Delhi and Mumbai because they’re constantly cooling down and deconstructing. We need a vision to understand how to make the city sustainable in the future.

Q

How difficult is it to work in a male-dominated profession?

A

When I studied architecture, it was quite male-dominated than it is today. We may have more women architects now, but the construction industry itself is a male-dominated environment — site supervisors and most engineers are men — so, yes, it’s quite a challenge. Because of the prejudices, people don’t necessarily like women telling them what to do. But that’s only one part of it. There are even simple things like lack of toilets.

For The Roxburgh Project, we wanted to upskill women labourers. We have seen how women are always the helpers, and the men are always the skill workers. There have been a lot of labour studies and women’s studies on this. It’s a small gesture, but we need to work on this in all directions.

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