Opinion

Our Heritage Deserves Better

The Government does not have the resources to care for our heritage sites. Public-private partnerships are a good idea.

In these times of hypernationalism, when each day throws up new claims about the glories of our past, it was sobering to hear a representative of the State admit candidly that India’s tangible cultural heritage is in shambles. This was what India’s tourism minister KJ Alphons said in an interview with Barkha Dutt:

Look at India — 5000 years of civilization! We have thousands and thousands of monuments including the Red Fort. They are stinking. They are dirty. There are no basic amenities. I mean, they are filthy. There is no garbage collection. There is no drinking water. There are no chairs to sit down. You won’t get a coffee there. You don’t have WiFi there. It’s all in a huge mess.

How is it that these remarks were from a minister whose government and its cronies are quick to slam as anti-national anyone who raises a stink about the state of affairs in India? I guess Alphons was trying to do some damage control after all the bad press it received after the government’s decision to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Dalmia Bharat Limited (DBL), under the former’s ‘Adopt A Heritage’ scheme. Through this agreement, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) designated Dalmia Bharat Limited (DBL) as a ‘Monument Mitra’ to the Red Fort in Delhi constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1639.

The company has bagged a five-year contract for 25 crore Indian rupees, focusing on development, operations and maintenance of tourist amenities at this UNESCO World Heritage site. Contrary to news reports or WhatsApp messages you might have read, this does not mean that the fort has been sold, mortgaged or leased. Neither has the company been asked to restore the monument. This is a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project, and DBL’s job is limited to providing and maintaining drinking water facilities, toilets, ramps, wheel chairs, signage, cleanliness, WiFi Internet, a cloakroom, a tourist facilitation cum interpretation centre, a cafeteria, surveillance systems, interactive kiosks, illumination, landscaping as well as light and sound shows. It has not been authorized to mess with the architecture of this spectacular fort.

If the condition of our monuments is bad as the minister says, isn’t this public-private partnership worthy of support? I still remember my visit to the Charminar in Hyderabad in 2010 when a policeman on duty reprimanded a couple scribbling their names with chalk on one of the inner walls. He handed them a bucket of soapy water, and an old piece of cloth, saying, “Clean it! Right now. I won’t let you go till you finish this properly.” I was more than amused. Names scribbled on monuments are such a common sight in India that they fail to shock me. I had never seen any person in authority take such swift action. The couple was embarrassed. They cleaned up, and fled.

It is impractical to have such officers stationed in every nook and corner of a monument, to shame visitors who do not mind vandalizing heritage structures. Ideally, tourists ought to understand self-regulation, but that norm is going to take a while to take effect. Meanwhile, we need to have prominent signage announcing penalties for defacement of property, and efficient surveillance systems in place to catch violators. Hopefully, DBL’s involvement in maintaining the Red Fort will sensitize tourists to the value of built heritage, and the need for citizens to help conserve it.

This public-private partnership has come under criticism primarily from individuals and collectives ideologically opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I support their right to hold the government accountable because we live in a democracy, and citizens bear the responsibility for eternal vigilance. However, they seem to have conveniently ignored the fact that several services at the Red Fort are already outsourced. Jaideep Deo Bhanj’s report in The Hindu states:

The audio tour is provided by a company called Narrowcasters, the toilets are maintained by Sulabh International, the entry tickets have been ‘powered by’ Canara Bank, and the guards are from a private security agency.

Are the critics crying foul because the bid for the Red Fort was won by DBL, and not by IndiGo Airlines or GMR Sports which were also in the running? That is quite possible. Vishnu Hari Dalmia, a scion of the corporate house, has served as the President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad — an organization that the BJP is closely associated with. Dalmia’s role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is well-known, and he was also one of the co-accused in the Babri Masjid demoliton case. He was granted bail by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court on a personal bond of Rs 50,000. These details matter to people who are bothered by the hostile political climate towards Muslims in India under a BJP-led government, with a Prime Minister who is still be held responsible by some civil society organizations for the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The Supreme Court of India, however, has not found any evidence against him.

What has added to the trust deficit against the Red Fort bid, is the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent omission of the world-famous Taj Mahal from a tourism department booklet to highlight the major tourist spots of his state. It is shocking, by any standards, to leave out a monument that travellers from all over the world queue up to visit. Foreign dignitaries, particularly heads of State arriving in Delhi, are often taken to nearby Agra for a visit to Taj Mahal. UP Chief Minister, Ajay Singh Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath, remarked that the heritage site does not reflect Indian culture. This must sound like anathema to those who treasure India’s syncretic traditions, as  the Taj Mahal is also known as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and celebrates the mingling of Hindu and Islamic influences. I must confess, however, that the Taj Mahal did not move me at all. I have been dragged there twice — once by parents, and another time by friends. The Wazir Khan Masjid in Lahore the one that gives me gooseflesh, not this fabled symbol of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz.

Back to DBL’s ‘adoption’ of the Red Fort. Left-leaning historians are worried about the interpretation centre that will be created and run by the company. They fear that it might not be an innocuous help desk providing visitors with information but an institutional space to rewrite historical narratives that would tamper with the contribution of Mughals to Indian art and architecture. This anxiety is not unfounded because the Indian government is reported to be working in collaboration with the ASI and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh, and influencing scholars to portray Indian history as Hindu history.

However, it would be a stretch to say that the ‘Adopt A Heritage’ scheme is a front for a devious plan meant to destroy all traces of Islamic culture in India. That would qualify as fake news. (Right-wingers do not have a monopoly on its production and circulation.) The list of monuments open for adoption in 2018 includes heritage sites connected with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Some of these are the Vitthala Temple in Hampi, the Martand Sun Temple in Anantnag, Jain and Vaishnava caves in Badami as well as Buddhist monasteries in Leh, Ladakh and Spiti.

Another criticism against DBL’s adoption of the Red Fort is their lack of expertise in the upkeep of heritage sites. The domains they are known for are cement, sugar, refractories. The Government of India has been criticized for giving this contract to them instead of an organization like the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which has a brilliant track record in restoring monuments of exceptional heritage value, including Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Critics of the MoU with DBL seem to conflate maintenance work with restoration work. DBL has not been commissioned to restore any part of the monument.

The stellar work done by AKDN in partnership with international experts and local communities is apparent for everyone to see. It is, however, incorrect to depict AKDN as a philanthropic organization ‘untainted’ by corporate money. As mentioned on its website, in India, AKDN receives funding from Asian Paints Limited, GRUH Finance Limited, Hindustan Unilever Limited, HDFC and Microsoft India. In other countries, it receives funds from corporates such as MasterCard, BNP Paribas, and Johnson and Johnson, among others.

While the application process for adopting heritage sites in India has been made transparent through this website, it is difficult to discount the role of DBL’s proximity to the central government in helping them bag the Red Fort contract. In January 2018, DBL organized a fundraising event at Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi to support ‘Bharat Ke Veer’, an initiative of Home Minister Rajnath Singh to, “enable civilians to contribute to the family of the martyrs of Combined Armed Police Forces.” In May 2016, DBL signed an MoU with the National Skill Development Corporation of India to, “impart vocational training and skills to 60,000 unemployed youth across the country” in various sectors such as, “Apparel, Beauty and Wellness, Retail, Auto, Healthcare, Construction, Agriculture, Security, Plumbing, and Servicing Capital Goods.”

Let us imagine, for a moment, that the bid has not been won by DBL. Think about the potential benefits of public-private partnerships instead of following in the footsteps of Ajay Maken from the Indian National Congress (INC), who has been reported saying that his party workers, “would contribute five crore rupees every year to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund if needed, but oppose the privatization of monuments.” Of course, the government can spare five crore rupees a year. That would be like small change, given the crores of money that are unearthed in scams every year. What the government does not have is the expertise to get things done, as must be gleaned from the remarks made by Alphons. The public sector is trapped in red-tape, while the private sector can bring in efficiency, market knowledge, innovation, swift implementation of ideas, and improvement in the quality of services.

While examples from Italy, Spain, France and Egypt are being thrown around to impress upon Indian citizens about the value of public-private partnerships in heritage management and conservation, it might be useful to know about what has been happening in our neighbouring Pakistan. Taxila (earlier known as Takshashila), one of the most significant Buddhist heritage sites near Islamabad, is being supported through a project funded by the Thai Airways International Public Company Limited in collaboration with Pakistan’s Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums. Thai Airways’ contribution to this project includes provision of benches and water coolers apart from installation of signboards in Urdu, Thai, Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean to attract pilgrims from countries with large Buddhist populations.

A UNESCO document from April 2013, prepared by Luis Monreal and Nada Al Hassan, quotes India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as saying, “I hope that more public-private partnerships can be evolved to maintain and restore the monuments of our ancestors, which often lie in a neglected condition in our cities and towns.” In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government led by the INC, had actively promoted the role of public-private partnerships in safeguarding India’s cultural heritage. The CSR rules were finalized in 2014 by Sachin Pilot, the the Minister of Corporate Affairs. The new addition to CSR activities included, “protection of national heritage, art and culture including restoration of buildings and sites of historical importance and works of art; setting up public libraries; promotion and development of traditional arts and handicrafts.”

It is clear that the INC sees merit in public-private partnerships but is being contrarian only because it is the leading opposition party in the Indian Parliament. When it comes to electoral funding, both the INC and the BJP are said to depend heavily on corporates. They can now legally accept funds from anonymous donors, located in India and other countries, and information about these transactions cannot be requested by the public. Therefore, the virtue-signalling about evil corporations and shady dealings is laughable.

There is whataboutery at both ends, which could be beneficial if used as a critical tool to demand accountability, but it is unfortunately reduced to a cover-up for one’s own misdeeds. We do not know how big or prominent DBL’s self-congratulatory signboards at the Red Fort will be but they have certainly got their money’s worth even before getting down to work. All the opinion pieces put together have given them enough publicity. Ironically, this piece is yet another addition.

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About the author

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He holds an M.Phil in English Language Education, and has worked with several academic institutions including the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.