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Posted at: May 13, 2018, 2:34 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 2:36 AM (IST)

Monumental concerns

The ‘adoption’ of the Red Fort triggered a huge controversy about the government’s recent initiative to involve corporate houses to maintain India's monuments. While the public’s concerns are legitimate, the scheme needs to be viewed in its entirety. Should it be dismissed without giving it a fair chance?

Rajnish Wattas

Last month I went to revisit the Qutub Minar after many years. The sun was already up and long serpentine queues, in a typically disordered Indian way, greeted me. Blocking the view of the ticket window, harried women and children, senior citizens and dazed foreigners stood in stoic acceptance. After about an hour of waiting, I decided to give up and go home. 

The recent initiative of the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, to rope in corporate houses as partners in the upkeep and sprucing up of tourist amenities at national monuments through a scheme called, ‘Adopt a Heritage’ or become ‘Monument Mitras’ has evoked political slug fests and TV debates. While some concerns, given the track record of some dodgy corporate houses, are legitimate, without looking at the thoroughly worked-out scheme in its entirety, to dismiss it is equally unwarranted. What is required instead is a deliberate, well-considered discourse.

At present, around 3,686, monuments of national importance are under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Out of these, 116 are ticketed monuments and 36 are world heritage sites. These are over and above the sites which are under various state governments. For an ancient civilisation like India, while on one hand this is a matter of great pride on its cultural richness, on the other, it poses a gargantuan challenge of finding adequate resources and manpower for the proper protection, upkeep and management of these monuments. In today’s world, a rickety bureaucracy operating from musty offices in arcane mode cannot be depended upon to deliver on the ‘Incredible India’ slogan. With both the national and state governments saddled with numerous burning issues, art and culture are among the lowest priority in their financial outlays. 

Seen in this context, tapping the corporate sector in extending a helping hand to the cash-strapped government for the badly needed improvements in amenities of heritage properties of the country in principle is laudable. The devil will, however, lie in the detail and actual implementation of the MoUs, signed by the ministry. 

Critical areas in PPP model 

The most significant aspect is to preserve the core values of the property which impart to its ‘Unique Outstanding Universal Value’. This means that in any attempt to improve upon amenities or sprucing up the monument the authenticity, integrity and truthfulness of the property and its precincts must not be tampered with. Landscapes of monuments, being fragile and requiring constant upkeep, can be soft targets of changes, thereby endangering their character. Can we imagine even an inch of the Charbagh garden principles integral to Mughal monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Humayun’s Tomb be altered into a different order? During restoration and repairs of damaged details or even small features, maintaining the authenticity of design, materials and their truthfulness is of utmost importance.

In Delhi, the amazingly good work done at the transformation of Humayun’s Tomb stands out. Ever since the six-year-long painstaking conservation and restoration work was undertaken by the Agha Khan Foundation, there is a Cinderella-like transformation.

While creating new amenities such as toilets, ticket counters and interpretation centres etc. these should be done in the least invasive manner and in sync with the architectural character of the monument. Another area where things tend to go over the top is in façade lighting of the property. Garish over-colourful illumination of heritage monuments may turn them into a razzmatazz extravaganzas at night. A case in point is the excellent manner in which the Acropolis in Athens and the heritage buildings of central Paris are lit up at night in plain warm light in brazen contrast to the very ‘un-British’ garish lighting up of London’s iconic Tower Bridge with colourful lights! 

An area where the corporate supporter will like to get its ‘pound of flesh’ will be in signage where its own credit is unduly highlighted in a loud manner, requiring stringent oversight. 

Need to maintain authenticity

Even without private players a misdirected or over-zealous sprucing up or beautification drive can quite change the original character of its historicity. Take the case of nearby Pinjore Mughal Gardens where in its initial push for a makeover the Haryana Tourism ended up replacing old worn-out chipped stone lining of the central water canal — a key axial feature of Mughal Gardens — with bright blue glazed ceramic tiles, making the canal look like a swimming pool instead of the reflective water body, mirroring the edifices it is intended to be! However, later these were replaced and now are lined with marble. Similarly, in the name of creating facilities for the disabled a huge massive ramp clad in red sand stone has been incongruously thrust in the centre of a sunken terrace. Introduction of a new material other than the ambient plastered surface painted in cream shades looks like a grotesque imposition. 

Numerous examples of excellent heritage conservation and maintenance exist in the country with professional expertise matching the best in the world. The key thing will be in the actual execution of the mandate given to the corporate ‘Monument Mitras’ and constant, vigilant oversight by experts of standing. 

Hopefully, the corporate supporters come good on their commitments and keep the national heritage true to the slogan, ‘Apni dhorahar, apni pehchan’.


Heritage management abroad

All over the world the private sector’s support is taken for heritage management. Huge donations and charities from premier corporates and organisations like the Getty Foundation and others support the National Park Service responsible for maintenance of heritage sites of national importance in America. 

Similarly Italy, Germany, the UK and France seek support from non-government and private sources. Not a long time ago, the Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal celebrated some events of his daughter’s wedding at the Palace of Versailles, the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Jardin des Tuileries and a fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower.

Sometimes back the Musée d'Orsay opened its doors for corporate and private upper-crust events — for a price. It advertises, ‘Right in the heart of Paris, the Musée d'Orsay offers a unique cultural environment for your private events. Enjoy special access to one of the most beautiful Impressionist collections of over 4,000 works by artists of the late 19th century: Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Maillol, etc.’ 

While no one is suggesting a ‘Rent the Red Fort’ scheme for gala weddings or other private events, a change of mindset in trusting the corporates needs to be given a chance. 

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