By Sheshu Babu*
Privatisation of many sectors has become a routine affair. Construction of roads, supply of electricity, means of transportation, etc have been handed over to contractors, firms, private individuals for maintaining and development. Recently, there has been a proposal to hand over Red Fort to Dalmia Bharat to upkeep and improve facilities as part of ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme (a repackaged version of National Cultural Fund or NCF, operational since 1996). These companies are called ‘Monument Mitras’ or friends of monuments (“Adopt a Heritage…” Sept 28, 2017, timesofindia.indiatimes.com). In the present form, the project focusses on 93 Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) ticketed monuments.
Companies and CSR
As part of CSR (corporate social responsibility), companies can invest in much-needed infrastructure to make the monuments tourist friendly. In exchange, they are allowed to use their brand names as a mark on souvenirs and signs.(May ,2, 2018, qz.com) . According to the article by Maria Thomas, the handing over of monuments has made many convinced that the government is handing over ” history to private companies with no experience or accountability”. Handing over such important site into the hands of private conglomerate has caused a lot of concern to many historians.
According to historian William Dalrymple, “The really great monuments of any nation whether it’s the Lincoln Memorial of America or Stonehenge or Westminster Abbey (in United Kingdom) or Taj Mahal or the Red Fort here should not be leased out for a corporate experiment.” The experiment should have been started with less important monuments. Leasing out to corporates which have no interest in history is a cause of concern.
Many have raised the problem with the scheme. It includes an indemnity bond that protects the company in the event of damages to a part of the monument. Also, the main wing ASI tasked with conserving monuments has approval rights, the companies may sideline it and use their brands on signs prominently to promote themselves with big lettered boards. Historians are also concerned with conservation. Rana Safvi, who has written many books on Delhi history, expressed her scepticism about conservation and restoration.
The Aga Khan Trust and the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), as also several other NGOs, have not been contacted for help. Also, there is a danger of politicization of the issue. The NGOs have been involved in true research and impartial interpretation regarding the historic sites. With the takeover of companies, they may have their own interpretation which may add to the already tense atmosphere.
Instead of privatizing, the government should allocate adequate funds for improving facilities. At present, the funds are currently well under 1% of the national budget. The government organisations must be revamped and sufficient staff should be recruited to maintain heritage sites.
Already, Goa government has expressed its unhappiness on handing over its monument to private players (May 2, 2018, indianexpress.com). The Basilica of Bom Jesus has cultural as well as religious significance. In an article, Shoaib Daniyal, (published on May2, 2018, scroll.in) also raises concerns about the lurking Hindutva agenda in adopting Red Fort by a private company. Dalmia was involved in Ram Janmabhoomi and Babri demolition issues. Thus, the policy may increase communal tensions.
Organisations like UNESCO have assisted and funded most famous monuments like Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. As Krzysztof Iwanek points out (April, 30,2018, thediplomat.com), the private company that adopts the monument may use it for furthering its marketable products directly or indirectly. It may also hike ticket prices. Even though it has to pay some money to for its lease to government, it may accumulate huge profits from visitors money.
The government should use taxpayers’ money judiciously. If it grants required money to NGOs and voluntary organisations for heritage sites, they will have more chance of renovating and improving basic amenities rather than handing over to industrial tycoons who are more interested in their self upliftment than genuine concern for history and monuments.
*The writer is from anywhere and everywhere. Whenever he ponders on the question ‘Who am I?’, he receives some response from a lyric of Bhupen Hazarika:
‘ I am a gypsy
The earth called me my own
And I have forgotten my home ‘