Monuments, Government & the Culture ‘Vultures’     

The government’s Adopt A Heritage scheme under which the Dalmia group has been handed over the responsibility of looking after Red Fort, leaves many questions unanswered. Hence the public outrage.

Photo courtesy: social media 
Photo courtesy: social media

Pragati Saxena and Zaheeb Ajmal

Reading reviews can be entertaining, if not instructive. A recent visitor to the Red Fort, an Indian, gave vent to his frustration by wondering why people visit the monument at all. He described his visit as ‘boring, very boring’ and declared that there was nothing to see beyond kilometre after kilometre of red walls.

Another visitor concurred. “Besides the museum, there is really nothing to do or see during the daytime. We spent most of our time in the garden and joked that we could have spent more lively time in the neighbourhood park,” he admitted.

Even tourism minister KJ Alphons (Minister of State with independent charge) sounds bitter and dissatisfied at the state of the monuments, even the Taj Mahal, which is the jewel in the crown! In a recent interview, the minister fumed, “I was at the Taj…inside the monument is fine. But, just go outside. My God, it is terrible…It is dirty, it is stinking. Everything around the Taj is bad. You need better toilets, better ticketing and better queuing facilities...You take any monument, it is all defaced and in a bad shape; is this how we want to show 5,000 years of our heritage?”

The foreign visitors, out of politeness, fear or otherwise, appear to be more impressed though, if reviews on the Net are an indication. Indeed, the number of foreign visitors to the Red Fort in 2016 was a respectable 1.5 million, which was higher than Indians in that particular year. And since the foreign visitor pays 16 times more as entry fees than an Indian ( ₹500 and ₹30 respectively), the foreigners end up paying more for the monument’s upkeep.

The government should not have given the Red Fort to a corporate as they are not archaeologists or historians. The government’s aim is to increase footfalls and revenue. Private firms may construct structures which will have no relation to the Mughal dynasty, says Irfan Habib, eminent scholar and professor Emeritus in the Department of History, AMU

Indian politicians, bureaucrats and city planners are no strangers to international hot spots. It is, therefore, a bit of a mystery why they have not been able to replicate the presentation of several of these heritage sites and museums. It is no rocket science to make use of music, films, interactive panels etc. to make monuments come alive.

Yes, the light and sound show at the Red Fort is indeed world class. But it is naturally held in the evening, costs more and has limited space. Not everyone can make it to the show.

What is mystifying however is the revenue that tourism generates and the money that the Government spends on monuments that tourists flock to.

Take the budget for the ministry of tourism (₹2,150 crore in 2018-19) and the ministry of culture (₹2,843 crore), which together is around ₹5,000 crore. Now compare this figure with ₹17,000 crore in ‘foreign exchange’ alone that foreign tourists are said to have contributed in 2017. Indeed, in an interview to The Week, Alphons appears to suggest that the Government earned ₹1.80 lakh crore from foreign tourists alone.

The Week in fact quoted him as saying, “for my ministry, only from foreign tourists, last year I got ₹1,80,000 crore. Can I, as a minister, tell the finance minister and the Prime Minister, Look here I am generating ₹1,80,000 crore, and I need all that money as my budget?’ That is not possible…”

What is also distressing is that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), entrusted with the task of protecting 3,686 ancient monuments and archaeological sites including 36 world heritage sites has a budget of ₹974.56 crore this year.

It is a wrong decision. How can we hand over our soul to any corporate which has no understanding of such heritage? Due to lack of Knowledge, they may distort it. Who will take responsibility then?, says SM Azizuddin Husain, Professor of History, Jamia Millia Islamia

To put this figure in perspective, it is apt to remember that the Modi government has allocated ₹3,000 crore for the statue of Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first home minister.

Public outrage over ‘selling our heritage’ is completely misplaced, says the government. The Dalmia Group would not even touch the Red Fort, explained the tourism minister in one interview after another. The ‘Monument Mitra’ would only be providing peripheral services and public conveniences while the ASI would still be in charge of the monuments and their upkeep.

The controversy has almost certainly been created by the government’s failure to hold consultations and take stakeholders into confidence. In fact, two BJP ruled states, Goa and Assam, called the government’s bluff soon after the news broke that the government had prepared a list of monuments to be handed over to corporate bodies for maintenance and upgradation of public facilities.

In both Goa and Assam, the Tourism ministry has now backtracked. In Goa they had to agree to terms set by the Catholic Church. And in Assam, in the face of growing protests, the ministry has given up its plan and withdrawn all the four heritage sites from the scheme.

In Goa, the government had shortlisted two enterprises, Drishti Marine and V-Resorts to adopt the old Goa Church complex, Aguada Cabo de Rama, Chapora fort, a lighthouse and Morijim beach besides the Basilica of Bom Jesus Church, a 17th century cathedral housing the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier, a 16th century Spanish missionary saint.

BJP’s state president in Goa, Vinay Tendulkar, and the minister for Archives and Archaeology Vijai Sardesai in fact cribbed that the state government had not been taken into confidence by the central government. Following mounting protests, the government agreed to take the Church into confidence and accepted the terms set by the Church.

"We should be clear about what exactly is the adoption scheme. The experience with Delhi (central government) has been that they come with a small thing and then they take over your whole asset," Sardesai said.

In Assam, the Tourism ministry had identified three Ahom-era monuments in Sivsagar district, namely RangGhar, Kareng-Ghar and Shiva Doul besides the Kaziranga National Park for adoption by corporate groups.

Once again, the Ministry backtracked following public protests by 14 organisations that included All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Kaziranga Development Society. These organisations were not averse to private entities giving funds under CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to preserve and maintain the monuments.

But they insisted that government agencies should carry out the development.

This scheme is one of many arbitrary decision of the central government. The JD(U)-BJP govt in Bihar has done the same by deciding to shift precious sculptures from Patna museum to the new world Museum in Patna. We need to raise our voices to protect our heritage, says Pushpraj, Cultural activist

Alphons predictably blames earlier governments for doing little or nothing to improve conditions or even provide basic amenities like drinking water, garbage collection, chairs and cafeteria. But there is no explanation why the present government failed to provide these services in four years despite increasing the budgetary grants by hundreds of crores of Rupees.

There is also another contradiction in what the minister claims and what he says. While claiming that the ‘Monument Mitra’ scheme is meant for providing only peripheral services, Alphons refers to the restoration work done by the Aga Khan Foundation at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. If the UPA government could hand over the monument to a ‘foreign agency’, he argues, what is wrong if the NDA government hands them over to ‘Indian agencies’? “Whoever is going to adopt is going to use expertise,” says Alphons.

A National Culture Fund (NCF) was set up in 1996 as a Trust at the initiative of the then HRD minister SR Bommai and culture secretary BP Singh during the United Front government. The Government put in the initial corpus and allowed the NCF to raise funds from various sources, largely through donations.

Managed and administered by a council headed by the culture minister and an executive committee headed by the culture secretary, the NCF was set up with a one-time corpus of ₹19.50 crore.

The donations received between the years 2013 and 2016 ranged from ₹15 crore in 2013 to ₹25 crore in 2016 according to information provided to the Lok Sabha in April this year. The expenditure incurred by the NCF during these four years ranged from ₹23 crore in 2013 to ₹13 crore in 2016. The highest amount, ₹37 crore, was spent by the NCF in 2015.

One of the major restoration works completed by the NCF was at Humayun’s Tomb, the MoU for which was first signed with the Aga Khan Trust in 1999. Ironically the present tourism minister Alphons has been justifying the Modi government’s ‘Monument Mitra’ scheme by citing the UPA government’s perfidy in giving the restoration work to a ‘foreign’ agency. What’s wrong if the NDA government hands over similar work (but he is on record saying that Monument Mitras will only do peripheral work) to Indian corporates.

NCF has by and large worked with public sector units like NTPC, GAIL and ONGC as well as private sector bodies like the Tata Group and Oberois.

Since the NCF has been active, the question is why the government felt the need to launch yet another scheme. If the government is taken at face value then the ASI will continue to work with the NCF for restoration and preservation of monuments while the ‘Monument Mitra’ will confine itself to provide public convenience. But in the absence of consultations and transparency, nobody seems to know what the government has in mind.

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