Funky Town is up in arms again. All because the end of Lal Qila is nigh. The 17th-century imperial residential fort built during Shah Jahan’s reign will now host DJ Aqeel on Independence Night. And if the Great Indian Culturewalas are right — which they always are, even when they’re wrong — the main Lahori Gate entrance will be renamed Dalmia Bharat Gate, after the cement, sugar and thermal power conglomerate Dalmia Bharat Group. Patanjali taking over the Taj, I suppose, is only a matter of time.
A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the ministry of tourism, ministry of culture, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI, which maintains all heritage sites) and the Dalmia Group. Dalmia will look after the maintenance of the Red Fort — and the Gandikota Fort in Andhra Pradesh — over the next five years under GoI’s ‘Adopt a Heritage’ project. There is no mention of breaking down the fort into small, Flipkartable bits for our table tops yet.
Words like ‘MoU’, ‘contract’ and, of course, ‘corporate’ have got many riled up. With our monuments all ready to be overrun by corporates, it’s 1717 all over again. And we all know what went on to happen once Emperor Farrukhsiyar issued a farman giving that corporate entity, the East India Company, the right to reside and trade in Bengal, don’t we? GoI has many more monuments, natural and cultural sites — such as Fatehpur Sikri in Agra, Sunderbans National Park in West Bengal, Pangong Tso (Lake) in Ladakh — it wants to ‘sell down the river’. ‘Over my Hampi ruins!’ naysay the naysayers. But eternal believer in the notion that things don’t happen simply by holding one’s breath till it happens, I somehow don’t see this as the beginning of the end. Because, for one, this isn’t even the beginning. While the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is not a ‘soul-destroying corporate’, in partnership with the ASI, AKTC’s glorious restoration of Humayun’s tomb in 2013 tells you that it’s okay to ask for help.
In 2016, Infosys Foundation completed the restoration of the Somanatheswara Temple complex in Karnataka. Earlier, cement giant ACC funded renovation work of Mumbai’s 150-year-old neo-Gothic David Sassoon Library in the Fort area. Under the 2013 ‘Clean India Campaign’, ONGC had taken responsibility to clean up the area inside and around the Taj Mahal in Agra. The Tatas had also shown interest. But something must have happened after 2013.
India is crawling with monuments, heritage sites and historic buildings. Many of them are uncelebrated, badly kept, crumbling. Or, worse, being torn down, like a portion of the historic Kolkata building, the Metropolitan Institution, which belonged to the Tagores before being turned into a school founded by Bengal Renaissance reformer Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar.
People not caring is easily blamed on ‘Indians not having a sense of history or heritage’. But the fact of the matter is that most of our historical monuments and buildings have poor signages and abysmal interest in engaging visitors, and the less said about how many sites are maintained even by the venerable ASI the better.
As scholar of Islamic Art and Architecture Catherine B Asher told me in a different context, “It’s not just a matter of financial resources. The issue is human resources as well. Almost everything must be filtered through the Director General of ASI, even trivial requests. Photography is a good example. If I want to photograph at an ASI museum, I need to write to the DG for permission that should be routinely granted, but in India is a major bureaucratic process. If I go to any of Europe’s or America’s major museums, I just photograph, no permissions needed.”
She agrees that tourism can play a major role in heritage conservation, but believes that the structure of tourism needs to be dramatically changed. “I have followed licensed guides at several of India’s major sites, listening to both their English and Hindi talks,” Asher said. “The misinformation they provide is often quite worrisome. One solution might be to establish a balanced committee of historians to oversee the guides and also the written information at sites.” This is something that the new private overseers of sites can immediately address and correct.
The howls against corporate participation lie in the twee notion that the upkeep of ‘national monuments’ is a job only for the nation (read: government). This, despite glaring proof that GoI institutions such as the ASI are underfunded and under-incentivised to ‘Air India creep’ levels. Historian-archaeologist Nayanjot Lahiri writes on this page (see below), “The real issue is that in such situations, the ASI abdicates all monitoring in relation to the concerned monuments.… The poor state of conservation of our monuments is what needs a major overhaul, and outsourcing without proper monitoring will not solve the problem.”
In Venice, residents protested when retail company, Benetton, wanted to turn the historic 16th-century Fondanco dei Tedeschi building into a giant shopping centre. On the other hand, in Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii, conservation work in the ancient site was sponsored by David Woodley Packard, a co-founder of the electronics giant Hewlett-Packard. No Packard cafés opened up next to Herculaneum ruins.
The Red Fort contract stipulates renovating its surroundings, installing illuminations, providing drinking water, holding cultural events and conducting restoration work and landscaping, all to be approved by a ‘monument committee’ with two bureaucrats, an archaeologist and a member of Dalmia Bharat. In return, Dalmia can use its brand name on souvenirs and signage “in a discreet manner and tastefully” — as has been done elsewhere, such as by American Express on plaques in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending on heritage conservation fell by 40% in 2016 (Rs 40.8 crore) from 2015 (Rs 67.87 crore). India needs more, not less, private funding for heritage conservation.
My friend and historian William Dalrymple understandably has tweeted with concern, “There must be better ways of maintaining a nation’s greatest monuments than by auctioning them off to a corporate house.” One hopes that bringing private parties to spend on conservation, in partnership with the ASI and experts, won’t be ‘auctioning’ our greatest, or less than greatest, monuments off.
Certainly, the professionalism and quality of the superlative Jaipur Literature Festival co-run by Dalrymple have been only pleasantly affected down the years by its partnerships with a cement company (DSC), a pan masala manufacturer (Rajnigandha), and a media house (Zee).