Conservation of national heritage needs the push of economic liberalisation

The Humayun’s Tomb restoration project remains an island in a morass of ignorant thinking about preservation of national sites

Written by Ratish Nanda | Published: June 7, 2017 5:44:00 pm
It all began in 1997 when His Highness the Aga Khan gifted the garden restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb, to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. (Source: Wikipedia)

July 2017 will mark a decade of efforts by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in the Humayun’s Tomb – Nizamuddin area of Delhi. In these 10 years, conservation objectives at Humayun’s Tomb were coupled with meeting socio-development and environmental goals benefitting local populations, creating employment opportunities for craftsmen and leading to a 1000% increase in visitor numbers to the World Heritage Site.

It all began in 1997 when His Highness the Aga Khan gifted the garden restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb, to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. However almost two decades since AKTC first partnered with the Archaeological Survey of India to share the responsibility of conservation of our national heritage, we remain the only private entity to have implemented conservation works at any of India’s national monuments. Only a few years before, India had set out to reform and change deep rooted systems in order to ensure much needed economic growth. Two decades later, there is hardly any sector not touched by private involvement in steering the country towards development.

Private banks, private hospitals, private universities today serve populations across all parts of the country. Similarly, private investment in the building of roads, ports, airports, metro corridors has ensured our national infrastructure is setting standards for the world.

However, despite worldwide recognition of India’s reform, responsibility for conservation and management of our national heritage sites, public museums and even performance arts is still seen as the sole responsibility of government departments. These remain staffed with scarce human resources and meagre government funding.

Meanwhile, the larger-than-life success of the large scale Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative was only possible because AKTC decided it would embark on creating partnerships with local agencies so that they understood the concept of trusteeship. So alongside the ASI, the Delhi Development Authority and the South Delhi municipal corporation, AKTC collaborated with national and international trusts such as the Tata Trust, Ford Foundation and the World Monuments Fund.

Corporates like Interglobe, Havells and Titan as well as foreign governments of Germany, the US and Norway also supported our efforts. And yet, despite two decades of a successful demonstration of public-private partnership at Humayun’s Tomb and over two years since the availability of Corporate Social Responsibility funds, little or no impact has occurred to enhance the state of preservation of national sites or museums. Almost all of India’s other significant sites are in need of dire attention, just as Humayun’s Tomb once did.

CSR funding in India is estimated to be in excess of Rs 20,000 crores annually; even 1% of this going towards conservation or upgrading museums will have significant impact. They can be utilised for engaging required multi-disciplinary teams to lead major conservation efforts, to curate and procure objects for museum collections, to provide modern exhibition design and site interpretation at both museums and sites.

Can private funds not be utilised to bring back significant Indian artefacts put up at auctions each month – as the Chinese have successfully done ? Most international museums and national heritage sites are dependent on private funding and expertise to operate without recourse to government funds. At museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, almost every object on display is a ‘gift’ and each gallery named after a donor – the result of museum curators and staff who work hard to secure private funds required to keep the museum to standards that will attract millions annually. The Louvre in Paris attracts double the number of tourists visiting India!

Private and corporate donors to museums and heritage sites understand that they are investing in the country’s development just as they would be doing so with investments in upgrading transport, health and education infrastructure.

To mimic the impact of the cultural sector on creating employment, increasing revenue through tourism and instilling a sense of pride in local communities, the government needs to incentivise and prioritise private involvement in the culture sector – corporates, universities, Resident Welfare Associations (RWA’s), Civil society groups, NGO’s, private philanthropists. Similarly, private groups need to understand that preservation of our cultural assets is a shared responsibility and not the burden of the government alone.

The Modi government’s emphasis on ‘ease of doing business’ needs to taken forward so that officials can actively seek private partnership and funding, rather than viewing all private effort with suspicion. Incentives such as tax and customs fee waiver for significant objects brought back and for funds utilised for conservation will no doubt pay handsome dividends in the form of revenue generated directly and indirectly by increasing visitors numbers. India’s heritage has the economic potential to contribute significantly to the country’s GDP – just as Italy’s does. This however will happen only with appropriate investments across the country.

Ratish Nanda, Conservation Architect, is CEO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India

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