Saving India's heritage: Storm in a tea cup

India has a unique combination of Mughal and British architecture.

The needless controversy and brouhaha over the handing over of the Red Fort to a private company has evoked myriad reactions since it involves our heritage. India remains capital deficit and this holds good for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as well. Moreover, the Consolidated Fund of India offers only that much financial leeway as it seeks its daily tryst with a bigger bang for the buck. The theory of elasticity is challenged daily in India by both the government and the hoi polloi. This is an across-the-board phenomenon as the government constantly battles a shortage of funds and capital. Hence, it makes eminent sense to rope in the private sector to bolster heritage monuments and their upkeep. Remember that these sites won’t be renamed but will have to put up a board saying, “adopted by so and so”. There has to be a halfway house in this — somewhere in between where the two ideas coalesce and not collide. It is vapid and banal to think that these monuments are being handed over to corporates.

The CSR rules were finalised after extensive consultation in February 2014, after which the then minister of state for corporate affairs Sachin Pilot signed a notification that the Centre released on February 27, 2014. The notification was issued to give effect to Section 135 and Schedule VII of the Companies Act 2013, which zeroed in on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spending by companies. Mr Pilot had said the new rules provide for the way in which the CSR Committee formulates and monitors the CSR policy, CSR activities, the role of the board of directors therein and the format of disclosure of such activities in the board’s report.

The new set of rules was effective from April 1, 2014, well before the election results and the advent of the Narendra Modi government. Item (e) included in Schedule VII called for the protection of national heritage, art and culture, including restoration of buildings and sites of historical importance and works of art; setting up of public libraries, promotion and development of traditional arts and handicrafts. So this government has done nothing new, and nothing that should bring about such intense reactions.

Moreover, two months ago, a parliamentary panel on transport, tourism and culture headed by Trinamul Congress MP Derek O’Brien noted that the initiative of “adopt a heritage site” was a welcome step on the part of the tourism ministry — he had asked the government if a major corporate could be compelled to adopt heritage sites. All major political parties are represented in this 31-member panel. Incidentally, the scheme “adopt a heritage site” was launched last year to encourage private sector participation. Corporates had to submit a plan on how they would upgrade facilities at these sites. Now, Mr O’Brien has tweeted saying that this matter was still being “discussed”, and that he “pledged to stop this”. Politicising this further, Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala jumped in to say that the BJP and the Prime Minister should be ashamed that they can’t find Rs 5 crores for the upkeep of the Red Fort.

In his Budget speech this year, finance minister Arun Jaitley had stated: “Technological interventions, private investment and infrastructure development will be the focus for development of heritage and tourist sites across India. The government proposes to develop 10 prominent tourist sites as ‘iconic tourism destinations’ through holistic infrastructure and skill development. In addition, tourist amenities will be upgraded at 100 Adarsh Monuments of the ASI.” The Adarsh Monuments, which include sites like the monuments at Karnataka’s Hampi and the Pattadakal group of monuments, Delhi’s Humayun’s Tomb, Maharashtra’s Elephanta Caves and Odisha’s Konark Temple will undergo skill development, branding and marketing. The National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojna (HRIDAY) has been taken up to revitalise heritage cities. Experts say that while attracting private investment for heritage conservation is easier said than done, there might be takers for the sites generating more footfalls and, therefore, more revenue. But it is hardly news that Dalmia Bharat has won the right to maintain and supervise the Red Fort.

Minister of state for electronics & information technology and tourism (independent charge) K.J. Alphons has categorically said the adoption scheme is aimed at ensuring better maintenance and amenities for visitors, and none of them are being rebranded. Already adopted Delhi monuments include Purana Qila (NBCC), Jantar Mantar (SBI Foundation), Qutub Minar (, Safdarjung Tomb (Travel Corp of India). ITC Hotels and GMR have evinced interest in the maintenance of the Taj Mahal.

So where’s the harm? Private and public sector entities have enough funds to spare Rs 25 crores for five years, while the ASI has the expertise, but lacks the financial liquidity to do the same.

When you do a deep-dive into the Budget document, you find the culture ministry was to receive nearly 3.82 per cent more funds in the current fiscal year as the government has proposed to allocate Rs 2,843 crores to it. The ministry was allocated Rs 2,738.47 crores in the previous Budget. Of the total budgetary allocation, the ASI is to get Rs 974.56 crores, which is 5.42 per cent more than the previous allocation. For libraries and archives, the government allocated Rs 109.18 crores. This provision is for the expenditure of the National Archives of India, National Library and Central Reference Library. What does it tell you? An acute paucity of funds dogs the ASI, which is expected to maintain innumerable monuments and other heritage sites across the country with a budget of under Rs 1,000 crores.

Conversely, why did the government give the Humayun’s Tomb restoration and refurbishment project to the Aga Khan Foundation? Precisely for the same reason. When Unesco and other non-profit organisations pitch in, we don’t have a problem. One would like to believe the Dalmia Bharat-ministry of tourism and culture/ASI memorandum of understanding is strictly on the lines of, say, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture tieup with the government and its nodal agency, the ASI. Six years of conservation works and 200,000 workdays overseen by 1,500 conservationists and undertaken by master craftsmen have been required to restore Humayun’s Tomb’s Mughal finery. Since 2007, the Urban Renewal Initiative, implemented by the Aga Khan Trust, in partnership with ASI, several government agencies and co-fund partners, included the conservation of over 30 monuments; the creation, by an extensive programme of landscaping, of a 69-hectare (170-acre) city park at Sundar Nursery Batashewala Complex; and significant improvements to the quality of life for the residents of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti and a repository of seven centuries of living culture.

Together with the conservation works on Humayun’s Tomb, a number of adjoining monuments have been restored, including: Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s garden tomb, Bu Halima’s garden tomb, Arab Serai gateways, Sundarawala Mahal and Burj, Batashewala group of monuments, Chausath Khambha, and Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli.

In February, the 90-acre Sundar Nursery Park was inaugurated, transformed into a planned Mughal-style garden, with a part of the park effectively remodelled as an arboretum, supporting microhabitats. Anchoring the green spaces are restored mausoleums from the 16th century. Then there’s the old nursery itself, built by the British in 1924 and still going strong with exotic plant species preening in their greenhouses and attracting visitors from all over the city. Similarly, the wondrous restoration of the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana by Ratish Nanda of the AKTC in conjunction with Indigo Airlines and ASI is another spectacular example of this private-public partnership model.

In Hyderabad, AKTC is doing exemplary work at the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park, which has 72 monuments, including the mausoleums of rulers of the Qutub Shahi dynasty (1518-1687), spread over 108 acres at the foot of the majestic Golconda Fort. Like many historic monuments in this 425-year-old city, the tombs have also been long neglected and face a threat from encroachers. The 16th-17th century necropolis is now getting a new lease of life thanks to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which began the conservation work in November 2013. For AKTC, a not-for-profit organisation engaged in conservation of monuments in various countries, this is the second conservation project in India after Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.

I am not saying Dalmia Bharat’s makeover of the Red Fort is going to be a mirror image of what the AKTC is doing in India and other countries. Far from it. But given the plight of India’s heritage monuments and the capital deficit, it’s a start. India has a unique combination of Mughal and British architecture. Take Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. A couple of years ago, a Rs 60-crore renovation and modernisation programme funded by the culture ministry was kickstarted, with the authorities carrying out a landmark preventive conservation of the heritage structure from the British era. There are different ways of doing this so that India’s cultural and historical legacy is enhanced and conserved at the same time. The illumination of North and South Block of the Central Secretariat building in New Delhi using Philips dynamic façade lighting is one such example, just as the Gateway of India in Mumbai is another. These iconic buildings house the Cabinet Secretariat, that administers the Government of India and are an integral part of India’s historical and political heritage.

Instead of allowing continued defacing and desecration of our heritage, one should encourage the Monument Mitra Programme and hope more and more companies come forward to save and salvage our collective national inheritance.

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