Tax but not ‘Heritage Homes’

Sunny Dua

Now that Jammu and Kashmir Government has started an exercise to tax properties in an year old Union Territory (UT), those living in heritage homes or buildings that have historical or architectural values must be exempted from such taxes so that architecture of pre-partition era could be preserved for future generations. The ‘City of Temples’ houses few heritage buildings that reverberate town’s original characteristics but they are all losing their sheen gradually due to poor maintenance and upkeep of structures that require huge money.
Lack of funds, heavy maintenance cost, crumbling structures, non-availability of old building material and trained artisans besides masons who were trained for constructing such historic structures including arches and lintels besides brickworks are some of the key reasons why several house owners are either selling their heritage homes or reconstructing them with modern day material and designs. Several others have even converted their heritage homes into commercial establishments due to which the original characteristics of buildings are being damaged severely.
In order to help these people retain originality of architecture of heritage homes and encourage them to not to alter their properties, the Government must come out with massive plans especially not tax them at all. Massive urbanisation is another key reason why owners of such homes are trying to convert their properties into more payable sources of income. Some of such properties are located in Panjtirthi, Kachi Chawni, Naraina Mohalla, Lakhdata Bazar, Peer Mitha and Jullaka Mohalla of old Jammu city that add to the aesthetics of Jammu of yesteryears.
Barring Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex and less than one hundred more buildings of same nature there’s nothing in the name of heritage that’s available in old Jammu city. Several such beautiful homes built with bricks and lime mortar and having arches, lintels, Jharokhas, magnificently carved doors and windows, stain glasses and huge courtyards have either been demolished or have crumbled due to weather vagaries and neglect on the part of owners. No previous Government had any plans to support owners of such homes so that the originalities of heritage homes are retained but now when Government is going to tax properties it can help them by exempting such homes from taxes.
To boost owners of buildings that have historical value and are declared ‘heritage,’ the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) had already decided to give some exemption in property tax. Similarly, North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) had also once decided to exempt heritage buildings from property tax. A statement in this regard was also made in Rajya Sabha by the then MP and former Delhi BJP president Vijay Goel. There are people in Jammu who own and also live in their heritage homes. The Government must make norms to not to tax these heritage properties especially the ones where the owners are not using their buildings for commercial purposes on the pattern of Delhi or Hyderabad.
This will not only encourage people to protect and preserve heritage homes but also give Jammu it’s original characteristics in terms of architecture. Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) as well as Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) besides all urban local bodies including Municipal Committees (MC) will be the nodal agencies levying and collecting taxes but the slab will be decided by Property Tax Board. This is also a fact that Government is transferring functions and functionaries of various departments to Urban Local Bodies as mandated under 74th Constitutional Amendment Act which requires huge funds to manage and simultaneously give better facilities to citizens.
Hence, property tax is very much likely to be imposed here like any other city of India but at the same time the slab, to be decided by Property Tax Board, should exempt small holdings, heritage homes, those not doing any commercial activities from their homes and most importantly those homes which are over one hundred years old. Some homes which are running nursery schools or middle schools for the conveniences of local population and giving employment must also be exempted from the taxation.
Similarly, graveyards, religious places, some select government educational institutions run by Charitable Trusts and government grant-in-aid must be completely exempted from property tax. To widen the scope and give relief to other select categories ex-servicemen and widows of ex-servicemen must also be given exemptions in property tax if they are residing in one house and don’t own any other property. It is apprehended that remission in property tax will be decided based on who owns the property and who resides in it besides nature and age of construction but by all means heritage homes must be exempted to retain a select few that still stand and add to the beauty of old Jammu city.
Houses that are running businesses as again the by-laws and land use clauses must be taxed and a decision as envisaged by JMC Commissioner in her recent interview to a private channel on social media taken in this regard as to how to deal with commercialisation of residential areas. To site an example, JDA owns a shopping complex ‘Bahu Plaza’ but next to it is a colony Gandhi Nagar where every second house has been allowed to run commercial activities from its premises. This has resulted in sheer failure of commercial complexes for the simple reason that people are having larger commercial spaces (After conversions/change of land use) in homes than at designated shopping areas and that too at a much lower prices.
To keep a check on this all, property tax has now become inevitable especially after the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir became Union Territory (UT). Citizens are demanding round the clock electricity, better potable water, better roads, wider sidewalks, good health centres, parks and gardens, parking slots, open areas and better educational institutions and to have this all tax has to be levied on the citizens only. The Government in order to run its affairs needs money and this is the reason property tax has now become inevitable both in Jammu as well as Srinagar besides in small towns.
Jammu and Kashmir had been enjoying immunity against property tax since ages thereby causing huge losses to state exchequer. Simultaneously a major share of central fund for urban development was not being extended to erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir but this property tax, which must be reasonable, is sure to make Jammu and Kashmir a self-reliant UT to execute maximum works pertaining to civic amenities which citizens bad been craving for without contributing a single penny earlier. What’s needed is that on the pattern of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) we must also develop heritage areas in city and exempt those buildings that have heritage values.
Many heritage buildings in Jammu as well as in Kashmir are in a dilapidated condition and require repair and renovation. In addition, maintaining such heritage structures is an expensive affair and no individual or organisation gets any incentive to upkeep heritage building. In order to stop demolition of such structures and keep them in good conditions, the JMC as well as SMC councillors must moot out a proposal and present before urban development ministry and get sanction for protecting and preserving heritage homes by not levying any taxes on them, especially when the owners are living in them and not carrying out any commercial activities from the same premises.
Initially the Government must extend the sop to all heritage buildings, including old structures in old Jammu city and gradually check more such structures declared as heritage by the civic bodies of other small towns in due course of time. The move will while save heritage properties it will also discourage people from occupying lands chunks beyond their financial capacities. It is also likely to encourage apartment culture in Jammu as well as in Srinagar where land bank is also shrinking because of massive urbanisation.
The decision to not to tax heritage properties if taken will be historic and help save many properties that add beauty to Jammu city and its aesthetics. This will also encourage heritage conservation in the city as there is no other way by which any government can help people keep their heritage structures safe and intact. Brick work, arches, entrances (Deodies), ornamental terracotta and steel grills, carved doors, cantilever balconies, huge walls built of lime and pulses and wooden battens that support roofs of several homes till date are worth preserving only if the Urban Development Department of Union Government besides UT administration senses the pulse and assesses historic value of such sites.