In defence: Dr. Kurush F. Dalal
Afew months ago, there was a huge uproar in the media and on social media regarding the Government of India (GoI`s) scheme to allow corporate houses to adopt heritage sites both cultural and natural. “Shah Jahan’s iconic Red Fort in Delhi is now Dalmia Bharat group’s Red Fort” : This is a typically ‘click-bait’ type of headline with virtually zero due diligence.
The hue and cry was that the GoI has,
a) ‘given away’ these heritage structures to multi-national and mega corporate houses
b) that this was a ‘saffron plot’ to re-write history
c) that this is a blatant giving-up of responsibilities, and that d) it is an insult to all those people who lived, died and strove to make these monuments what they are. Should we debate this? Yes, we should. Debating the pros and cons will only make our democracy and the scheme stronger. Should we go off shouting how horrible it is, without looking into it? No, that would be plain foolish.
Let’s look at the facts. This scheme is a revamped version of an older scheme (first proposed by the last government), and at no point does the scheme give away the monument. The monument per se and its conservation
continue to be in the very safe hands of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The adopting agency is responsible for cleanliness, security, sanitation, drinking water, ticketing, and facilities like lighting, park furniture, disabled access, Wi-Fi, audio guides, and a visitor’s centre. They may set up a food and beverage concession, and a gift/souvenir shop. The ticket amount goes right into the coffers of the ASI. Any money generated by the adopter is put into a specific account, and all profits have to be funnelled right back into the monument adopted. The landscaping will still be strictly in the hands of the ASI.
Why do I think it’s a good idea? The first reason is because our heritage desperately needs help. This scheme will allow the ASI to concentrate on what it does best, i.e., taking care of the conservation aspect of the monument. It will also take a huge load off the ASI’s shoulders regarding the nitty-gritty of non-archaeological and non-conservational matters. The second reason is because the government and its agencies take loads of time to do things. They have complicated, cumbersome mechanisms, and the smallest cog failing can result in months, if not years, of delays. The corporate world in that way is the antithesis, and will get done what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. And in the most cost effective way possible.
Many an Indian corporation does (contrary to public belief) care about the nation’s heritage, and would love to give back a little something to it. They have the funds and are willing to use them under the very strict guidelines and supervision of the ASI, and the responsible ministries. They have to take on a government-empanelled conservation architect, and even after that the monument per se is completely off-limits. So, what do the corporates get out of this? They get satisfaction, pride and bragging rights. They also get their logo on a board outside the monument, on one corner of the tickets, and inside the toilets. Let’s give them a chance. The GoI has very clearly maintained that they can and will immediately pull the rug if the corporate sponsors don’t follow meticulously the guidelines. Let’s be the pubic watchdogs and keep them in line!
So let’s breathe a little easy and take stock of the situation and calmly proceed.
Counter-view: Raamesh Gowri Raghavan
Let us look at Dr. Dalal’s statement, “Our heritage desperately needs help.” This is beyond any question. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) alone has 3,650 monuments under its care, not to mention thousands more under departments of archaeology belonging to each state. As stated by Dr. Tejas Garg in his interview published in this issue, the State Government of Maharashtra has 373 monuments under its care, with a mere 80 watchmen to guard them. Conservation of monuments is an expensive task, and make demands on our public resources. In a country with pressing needs for education, health and defence; every paisa spent on a building from the past is an unconscionable distraction.
So why should we argue that ‘handing over’ monuments to private parties that have the resources, is in fact a bad idea? I will advance two reasons.
Firstly, all our monuments are a shared heritage of the country, and whatever their origins, belong equally to all classes and communities of citizens. The Indian state, which governs the country on the basis of a Constitution enacted by ‘We The People’, thus holds these monuments in trust. A corporate entity, whose primary motive is profit, has no such obligations. Having worked in the advertising industry, I can say with confidence that a company will attempt to milk the branding opportunity, however much the government limits it.
Monuments like the Red Fort, Mahabalipuram Shore Temple, Ellora Caves or Konark Sun Temple are already well maintained, as they attract a large, ticket-buying public. Textbooks, popular encyclopaedias, tourist guidebooks and websites talk ad nauseam about them. In advertising terms, these count as ‘eyeballs’ to whom you show your brand and as ‘mindspace’, which your brand aims to conquer, even in a toilet. For a corporation, this is money well-invested. But there are many monuments, away from the public imagination, that are still critical to our understanding of the past, for example the wondrous pyramid of Mansar near Nagpur, dating from the Vākāṭaka period. We can bet that few from even Nagpur will have heard of it, leave alone the rest of the country. Which corporation will not think twice before ‘adopting’ this monument?
A second reason is that this leaves the long-term funding of our monuments to the whims of the private
Pyramid of Mansar near Nagpur world’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) priorities. These are in turn hostage to the government’s tax policies. Tomorrow, if it creates other incentives or mandates for private money (such as electoral bonds or cleaning the Ganga), you can bet that the ‘adopted’ heritage will be promptly de-adopted. Also, you may be sure that this CSR money will be an excuse to trim the ASI’s budget, which the government will not replenish quickly if the private money dried up.
It might be a sounder scheme to allow corporations to donate directly to the archaeological agencies, and to give them generous tax relief for doing so. ASI should also be allowed to invest this corpus through something akin to a sovereign wealth fund, so it has an autonomous cash flow. This would let it conserve all monuments, not just the popular ones; and also hire talented young people to do this (without needing permissions from the bureaucracy). ASI is already under public oversight through RTI and parliamentary monitoring through CAG audits, so you know what happens to the money. Also, as the CSR is fulfilled by transferring the money, the corporate will be relieved from dealing with the bureaucracy, which Dr. Dalal rightly describes as ‘complicated, cumbersome mechanisms’.