Red Fort, New Delhi (Shajankumar/Wiki Commons)
Snapshot
  • Inviting private players to help in maintaining and administering heritage structures is a welcome step. But as always, caution is advised.

The recent development of the government permitting the adoption of Red Fort by the Dalmia group evoked mixed reaction with the opposition parties vehemently criticising it. From “heritage on sale” to coming up with branded names for monuments (ITC Taj Mahal, Adani Charminar etc), media and opposition managed to grab the eyeballs last weekend. Delhi Congress president Ajay Maken said that the scheme was a “conspiracy” of the Modi government to “sell or lease” the historic fort. So has the government really “sold off” our monuments to private sector companies?

Delhi’s Red Fort was adopted by the Dalmia group under the “Adopt a Heritage” scheme of the Tourism Ministry notified last year in September. Under the scheme, the group has been entrusted with the maintenance of the monument for five years at a cost of Rs 25 crore. In return, the group will get the privilege of displaying its name on plaques and signage within the site, “in a discreet manner and tastefully”. The scheme extends to 93 ticketed Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) monuments as of now.

The vision statement of the project says, “Ministry of tourism in close collaboration with ministry of culture and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) envisages developing the heritage sites, monuments and any other tourist sites by making them tourist-friendly to enhance the tourism potential and their cultural importance, in a planned and phased manner.”

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Under the scheme, the group selected will provide tourists with amenities such as clean toilets and drinking water, illumination, signage, Wi-fi, multi-lingual audio guides, cloakroom, canteen, advanced surveillance system (Like Pan-tilt-zoom(PTZ) based CCTV cameras), tourist facilitation cum interpretation centres (tourist multi-purpose centre) which will have facilities such as museums, shopping/souvenir shops, money exchange, digital interactive kiosk, digital (LED) screening, light and sound shows with regular cultural shows, battery-operated vehicles and advanced tourist flow management system linked with carrying capacity of the monuments. The organisations have been selected through “Vision Bidding”.

The Convenor of the Delhi Chapter of Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Dr Swapna Liddle takes the entire scheme with a pinch of salt though. She hopes that “government is not giving up monuments, just recruiting corporate funding and energies to add infrastructure”. According to her, the entire “handing over” of the monument is a misnomer,” here we are not talking of 'handing over' as such, but a partnership, I feel, let us involve private players, particularly as they are putting in funds, and running it on a non-profit basis. But let us be vigilant and monitor the process to make sure that it is sensitively done.”

Across the globe, there is a growing understanding that heritage resources are not the sole monopoly of the government and other stakeholders such as public or private companies or experts have to be involved in various capacities. For example, owing to resource crunch and a failing economy, Italy has entrusted some of its well-known monuments to private players, especially fashion brands. Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the world. In 2011, luxury leather goods company Tod's pledged €25 million toward the restoration of the Colosseum. In May 2013, Diesel entered into an agreement to restore the Rialto Bridge in Venice to the tune of €5 million. The brands, in return, generate public relations (PR) value of maintaining a heritage site as well as marketing advantages (such as placing billboards).

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Why exactly do some people in India seem to be so enraged?

● Private players have been involved earlier

This is not the first instance of government toying with the idea of involving private players. The National Culture Fund (NCF) was established in 1996 and is managed and administered by a council chaired by the Minister for Culture and an executive committee chaired by the secretary, Ministry of Culture. Members of the NCF council are from corporate houses, private foundations and experts in various art forms, academicians. Under ther NCF, it is possible for a donor to take up a project along with any specific aspect for funding and an agency for the execution of the project.

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Thus NCF sought to augment the governments’ efforts and promote public-private partnership for heritage conservation and promotion. All contributions to the NCF are given 100 per cent tax exemption under Section 80 G (2) of the Income Tax Act of 1961.

The new scheme essentially repackages this older version where the government entrusts tourist sites to private sector companies, public sector companies and individuals. The private players called the ‘Monument Mitras’, would be able to associate pride with their corporate social responsibility(CSR) activities and provide basic and advanced amenities at the destinations.

Under NCF, a number of successful partnerships were carried out. Aga Khan Foundation and Oberoi Group of Hotels carried out garden revitalisation and lighting of the main tomb at Humayun’s Tomb Complex at a cost of Rs 2.25 crore. The illumination, signage, conservation works of Jantar Mantar, New Delhi was done by Apeejay Surendra Park Hotels Ltd. The Indian Hotels Company Ltd (Tata Group) sponsored the conservation project at Taj Mahal at a cost of Rs 1.87 crores.

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In addition to private companies, public sector companies such as the Indian Oil Foundation and foreign institutions such as the World Monument Fund were also engaged in collaboration with the ASI for various projects. Some, however, still feel that involving private players might not be the best idea when it comes to heritage and cultural assets. Director of GointheCity and leader of curated cultural walks Gaurav Sharma echoes the sentiment, “I was appalled to hear that our national monuments will up for auction for private players even just to provide basic amenities which would allow them to promote their brands adequately. Most of these players have no past record of heritage conservation. It’s also not about the incompetence of the government, there seems to be a lack of will on the part of the government. The Dalmia group which has adopted the Red Fort will provide Rs five crore annually for maintenance of Red Fort. The government, however, could have raised the amount through activities such specialised tickets or specially curated walks.”

Interestingly, a number of amenities at the Red Fort are already outsourced to different agencies. The entry tickets are “powered” by Canara bank, audio tours are provided by Narrowcasters, toilets are maintained by Sulabh International and security is taken care by a private security agency.

● Concerns over heritage expertise of companies

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This is perhaps the biggest blind spot of the new scheme and some legitimate concerns have been raised by sector experts regarding the heritage expertise of the companies who would be taking over maintenance. For example, according to the memorandum, the group is supposed to provide amenities such as the lighting of the fort, which might cause more harm than good if not carried out properly and in harmony with the ageing structure. Similarly, cleaning of a heritage site requires special attention too with its age-old surfaces of wood, sandstone, marbles and other intricate works.

Heritage enthusiast and founder of Youth for Heritage Foundation Vikramjit Singh Rooprai opposes the move and the entire perception that the ASI is incompetent. He says, “ASI is not incompetent. However, it is not empowered enough by the ruling parties. For decades, ASI people have been asking governments to provide them with required resources, money and permissions to carry out certain tasks. But governments have been very reluctant as heritage has not been a priority of any minister since independence. Still, ASI was able to provide enough facilities on monuments. Red Fort, for example, has an adequate supply of drinking water and facilities like toilets etc. Interestingly, two major elements given to Dalmia are water and toilets (which are already in good condition). Other than that, Dalmia will also take care of lighting. The monument closes at night and lighting is only required for people coming in for the light-sound show. We already have proper lighting on that path. There is a nice cafe inside Red Fort. But Dalmias have been told to make their own (another avenue to generate profit).”

Mr Vikramjit also points out that “Dalmia group is also responsible for the Interpretation centre. This is the scary part. Now, Dalmias can put whatever information they want and however they want to project. And with the government supporting them, ASI will have least say in that”. Such a provision can potentially be lethal, as it can act as a weapon in hands of a politically or ideologically motivated individual or group to re-interpret history.

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The scheme, however, claims to have adequate checks. The compliance guidelines on the official website say that the five-year contract “can be terminated if the company does not comply with the ASI guidelines”. The legal status of the monument will not change after adoption, the company will not collect any money from the public unless allowed by the government, and profits, if any, will be used to maintain and upgrade tourism facilities. An Oversight and Vision Committee, co-chaired by the secretaries of Tourism and Culture, and with the D-G, ASI, as a member, would also be constituted to keep a watch.

There is absolutely no doubt that private agencies may be better situated in providing funds for infrastructure management around the monument but utmost care has to be taken. Unlike any other infrastructure project leased out to a private agency (such as the construction of a highway or an airport), reckless meddling with symbols of national importance may cause irreversible damage. Fortunately, we do have examples to learn from. The renovation and conservation of Humayun's Tomb and the monuments of Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin are outstanding examples of the benefits that accrue from cooperation among the ASI, the government's public works department and a private trust like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The scrupulous restoration of the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan led by the conservation architect, Ratish Nanda, of the Aga Khan Trust and supported by IndiGo airlines and the ASI is another public-private success story. The current scheme, however, does not pay attention to assessing the expertise of the organisation and no criteria is listed out for choosing a “monument mitra” apart from financial soundness.

Dr Liddle, however, gives us some hope when she says,” I feel that the Monument Mitra agencies should be taking the help of INTACH as well as historians and other experts in areas where this knowledge is required – e.g. interpreting the monument and its history”.

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