The World Heritage Week, which comes to a close today, provides an excellent occasion to introspect and reconsider our approach towards the preservation of a rich heritage that our forefathers, and nature, have bequeathed. For over one and a half centuries, the state has undertaken this task with a varying degree of success and failure. But it is now time for a mature nation to consider a broader framework of citizen-government partnership, as this heritage belongs to the entire nation and not only to its present custodians.
Let us look at our record so far. We have 32 sites, 25 of which are historic or “cultural”, on Unesco’s world heritage list, and only five countries are ahead of us — Italy, China, Spain, Germany and France. This is mainly because they were busy filing nominations in the 1970s, when the argumentative Indian and the Archaeological Survey of India were looking elsewhere. By the time we realised the importance of being on the list, the “drop gate” had come down and Unesco had restricted nominations from each country to only two per year, irrespective of its size, history or geography. But we do not seem to have succeeded even in this limited task, as the ASI could not submit even a single nomination to Unesco for several years. This “scandal” was hardly noticed either by the nation or successive directors general of the ASI, or even by culture secretaries and ministers.
When we finally got our act together, we managed to place 12 fresh sites on the tentative list that precedes the final scrutiny and listing in just four years, between 2009 and 2012, against only 12 claims listed in the preceding four decades. A part of this sudden burst of energy was owed to an advisory committee set up within the culture ministry comprising private experts, though the ASI did not seem pleased to have to give up its monopoly. Within the next two years, India filed 22 more applications, and we now have a wider choice of 50 “properties” on the tentative list from which we can select our final nominations to receive the world heritage tag. It saves us from the last-minute tension of filing dossiers on the closing day and substantiates the view that wider participation can help improve performance.
We have an inherent responsibility to protect and preserve what god has endowed us with, in the form of unique natural landscapes, seven of which find mention as “natural sites”. If one goes over the dates, one can clearly see how there were occasional bursts of energy in the ministry of environment in 1985-88 and then again in the 2010s. There are mysterious black patches when no effort was taken to nominate sites for Unesco’s heritage status, which is proof, if any were required, that a nation’s heritage is too serious a matter to be left in the care only of officialdom.
Intach and other societies have made valiant strides to spread the message though, frankly, “heritage” remains the obsession of small groups of concerned citizens. Any attempt to involve citizens ultimately hits the wall of the law: the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, which replaced Lord Curzon’s Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 and entrusted the entire task of the preservation of “monuments of national importance” to the ASI. As someone who has worked with the ASI, I believe that other than its perennial shortage of money and personnel, it is too hamstrung by government procedures to incubate and carry out great projects. So sad is the ASI’s condition that half of its 3,680 protected sites do not have a single guard. Horror overtakes us when we read that anywhere between 45 to 92 of such sites are actually “missing”. Entrusting the community to look after “unimportant” monuments, with some local pride and involvement, is suspiciously viewed and thought to be fraught with dangerous consequences. In most advanced countries, local heritage groups play a key role in the upkeep of many monuments and often do a great job. India too needs to consider this option seriously. The ASI’s list could also be slashed dramatically by deleting from its purview sites such as John Nicholson’s grave which, apart from other factors, commemorates Delhi’s devastating defeat in the war of 1857.
But heritage does not mean only built or natural wonders. It also refers to living heritage, like customs, rituals, literature and the performing arts. Traditional societies like India are especially rich in this domain of intangible cultural heritage, as all relations are not crisply monetised. Here again, Unesco stepped in with consultations among its state parties, and developed the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. India could register three living traditions in the first round — Vedic chants, the Ramayana and the Kutiyattam dance of Kerala. But when the lobbying began in earnest in 2008, it was caught napping, as China inscribed 26 traditions in one shot, while Japan and Korea managed to get in dozens. Every attempt to galvanise or even shame cultural organisations were met with yawns or a “What’s in it for me?”, until one literally pleaded with them to think of the nation’s prestige and wasted potential. As a result, India presented 20 nominations by 2010 but Unesco, quite irrationally, cut the national quota to three per
year. So, we now have only 13 on the world list.
These are only pointers so that we may move away from Unesco to where we started: public participation. This is emerging slowly, but the current pace of involvement will not be enough to combat the forces destroying heritage, whether in the form of structures, nature or living culture. Respect or pride in one’s history is simply not enough to sustain us in this difficult task. We will keep bemoaning the state of preservation in our country, until we frankly discuss the issues concerning family treasures with its members, especially the younger ones.
The writer is chief executive officer, Prasar Bharati