A heritage manhole cover from Chandigarh was auctioned for Rs 10.15 lakh by a private auction house in London on Tuesday.
Taking note of the development, Ajay Jagga, a member of the Heritage Protection Cell (HPC), has written a letter to Union foreign minister S Jaishankar. He has also sent a copy of that letter to parliamentarians in the United Kingdom and the Indian High Commissioner in London.
He said in the letter, “No one is checking these auction houses, as to from where they got the Chandigarh items. The latest is a manhole auctioned by Sotheby’s in London last night (21-09-2021) for a sum of GBP 10,080 (Rs 10.15 lakh). Amazingly, in 2010 also, a manhole was auctioned in the UK at almost a similar price.”
Jagga said that the representation was filed in accordance with Article 51A of the Constitution, which says, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India… (f) to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; (i) to safeguard public property.”
He added that the auction of Indian heritage items by foreign auction houses was denting the nation’s prestige. All foreign embassies of the Indian government should be alerted and the UN can also be approached to remind it of its commitment to combat trafficking of cultural objects, the HPC member said. He stressed that trafficking of cultural items was closely related to money laundering and criminal activities.
“The auctions in the UK of heritage Chandigarh items designed by Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier have been happening since before 2010, so I have also tried to draw the attention of the UK government,” Jagga said.
Nearly two months ago, the members of the HPC had urged the Chandigarh administration to get Corbusier heritage items notified under the Antiquity Act to prevent them from being auctioned in foreign markets.
The HPC made the move after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) stated that it “cannot take any action since these heritage items do not come under the category of antiquity or art treasure as per the Antiquity and Art Treasure Act, 1972.” The agency had written to Jagga after being informed of a similar auction in Paris in May this year.
The ASI had, however, said that it asked custom officials to prevent trafficking of Chandigarh heritage items in view of an order issued by the Union ministry of home affairs dated February 22, 2011 to preserve the architectural heritage of Chandigarh.
In June, the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation had decided to replace over 2,000 Corbusier heritage manholes in the city with ordinary cement-concrete manhole covers. The work was estimated to cost Rs 71.64 lakh to the civic body. But no plan was devised to store the heritage manhole covers after they were replaced.