There has been considerable criticism. Yashwant Ramamurthy, chairman, Indian Institute of Interior Designers, who teaches architecture students about the preservation of heritage, says he was hoping the Americans, who "don't have any great history" themselves, would be sympathetic to Hyderabad's heritage. Says he: "Going by the way they're chopping trees, I would describe it as criminal and absolutely hypocritical. In the US, any building over 80 years is a heritage site so they were lucky to be allotted the Paigah Palace in the first place. But they've been insensitive in their treatment of the premises."
Especially so, say environment-conscious citizens, because the Paigah Palace has only been temporarily leased to the consulate till July 2012. The state government has already allotted 12 acres for their permanent office near the HiTec City in 2011. They are asking: why bring down trees in a heritage site the US will occupy merely for a few years?
Security concerns and road-widening are the reasons being cited by consulate officials. Following the '07 blasts in the city and reports of increased isi activity, US officials have been nervous about terror threats and want to leave nothing to chance, says an officer of the AP general administration department. However, Ramamurthy says he fails to see the connection between trees and terror attacks. "Do you expect a terrorist to climb a tree and take aim at the consulate? And given the fact that Americans have hi-tech surveillance equipment, they could have worked around the problem."
P. Anuradha Reddy of Intach, Hyderabad, says it's horrifying that a country like the US which lectures others on global warming should cut down trees in a heritage precinct. "If they're so worried about security, why don't they dig a bunker and hide? A heritage building is complete with its trees and greenery. If they didn't want trees, they ought to have opted for an ordinary building with nothing around it," she says.
Standing on a four-acre site, the Paigah palace was acquired by the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority in 1981 from the descendants of the Viqar Ul-Umra (Mohd Fazaluddin Khan), prime minister to the sixth Nizam. The palace has 20 spacious rooms, huge halls and 22-ft high ceilings. The US is spending $7.6 million for renovation of the palace. "I wouldn't rule out the possibility of them changing the interiors as well," says Ramamurthy.
Expressing helplessness, divisional forest officer M.J. Akbar says it's indeed a tragedy. "The municipal corporation and state government undertake road-widening works. We're in a checkmate situation and cannot say no to the authorities. When huge buildings are being demolished for roads, we cannot expect trees to defend themselves," says Akbar.
Of course, the consulate will come as a relief to visa-seekers who now have to go to Chennai. But the official US callousness towards heritage has brought out some bitter sarcasm. Says Reddy: "Why didn't they build a tree house and station security staff to monitor movements?"