Privatisation of heritage monuments

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A couple of days ago one got to read that the Dalmia group was to adopt the iconic Red Fort. A furore was unleashed followed by a fightback from those who this is great.

My reactions are mixed. I seriously believe that Indian heritage monuments need to be protected, restored and maintained. But I am not certain that giving away (er selling away) the responsibility to various organisations that have nothing remotely to do with history or art or culture, is the way to do it. Let me explain.

I think we all will agree that most Indian historical sites are in a state of disrepair and neglect. The situation is much better now than as compared to 2–3 decades earlier. As the Indian economy has grown, there has probably been spare cash to maintain these monuments better. Perhaps we have learnt from Europeans who manage to jazz up very simple sites, roll in maintenance, print up nice brochures and attract paying visitors.

We will also agree that the situation has improved at the big ticket sites like the Taj Mahal, Agra fort, Red fort, Humayun Tomb etc. Interestingly I have always felt that the State of Rajasthan has traditionally maintained their heritage structures much better than any of the other States. There may be a lot to learn from how it is done there.

That the sites need to be maintained is indisputable.

But should they be handed over, for a monetary consideration, to private bodies that are in no way connected to culture and heritage? I would say NO. Why do I say no?

If these bodies are paying a fortune for the ‘privilege’, it stands to reason that they would want a return on investment. After all that is their raison d’être. How would they get any return? Some ways could be

(a) By using these sites to advertise themselves. How do you think this looks? Picture of the Taj from the internet, the crude insertion of the Jio logo is mine. I am not a photoshop expert and am only making a point. 

red fort j

(b) By renting them out for private parties or hosting their own parties there. How do you think the Red Fort is looking here? Picture of the Red Fort from the internet, the crude insertion of the film title is mine. 

redfortj

Who do you think will clean up the mess? Remember what Art of Living did to the banks of the Yamuna river? Also note that Dalmias have been given ‘advance indemnity’ for changes in the monument that may arise out of construction and use of entertainment spaces.

(c) Charging large entry amounts or prohibiting access to public and tourists on days on which those parties are being hosted.

I think that these structures are better off being maintained by a body like the Archaeological Survey of India or Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (which has done great work in many cities). Bodies that we need to strengthen. Bodies that should be armed with more resources and more teeth to penalise vandals. Bodies that may make some earning from entry fees or sound and light shows but ones that are NOT driven by profit.


To those who may say “but giving these for maintenance to private bodies, like the Dalmia group, does not mean they will be misused”, I say

  1. “Sure. But how will they get a return on investment? If they are only doing it from the goodness of their hearts, why can they not make donations to the ASI for maintenance of specific monuments and get a credit plaque in return?”. This has happened in the past where corporate bodies have supported the upkeep of monuments but been discreet about it. They have not had indemnity because control was not ceded to them. Perhaps that discretion is no longer valued?
  2. “If they expect nothing from this investment, what are they expecting as quid pro quo elsewhere?”

To those who say, “this is about less government and more governance and it is not government’s responsibility to maintain heritage structures anyway”, I say

“National heritage and belongs to the people. Governments represent people and safeguard their lives, properties and interests. They may not do it themselves but they have the duty of supporting the upkeep and NOT by handing them over and weakening laws (ASI loses much control in the Dalmia deal).”

This is what a respected historian thinks of this move:

Dalrymple


The bottom line is that does government think that heritage structures are something that need to be maintained for the citizens of the future, as is the case in any civilised country, or are they milch cows to be milked for profits NOW; and to the hell with future generations.

Makarand

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