The government’s decision to involve the Bharat Dalmia Group in the maintenance of the Red Fort and for providing amenities like restaurants, drinking water, street furniture, tactile paths, clean toilets etc for five years in exchange for Rs 25 crores and the privilege of placing their name on signage inside the fort, has understandably led to a fierce debate. The Opposition has accused the government of selling the symbol of the freedom struggle. The expected riposte from the ruling dispensation is ‘What about the handing over of Humayun’s Tomb to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture?
The Red Fort is not merely a symbol of our freedom struggle — the 1857 War of Independence was led by Bahadur Shah Zafar from here, which is why Pandit Nehru and every prime minister since has addressed the nation from its ramparts every August 15 — it is also a world heritage site, one of the three in Delhi. When such a symbol is handed over to a corporate entity, even if it is only to provide basic services, questions are going to be raised.
Much is being made of the tactile tiles for the visually impaired that the Bharat Dalmia group is going to install at great cost. What are these tactile titles being tom-tommed about so much? These are tiles with raised ridges seen at every metro station and at educational campuses, hospitals and other places that assist the visually impaired to navigate safely. This is not something that needs great skills or finances. A corporate entity with market capitalisation in the neighbourhood of Rs 27000 crore does not need to take on the job that can be performed by a mason. All that is needed is a little sensitivity for those less privileged than you and it is this sensitivity that is missing both in matters of tactile tiles and heritage conservation.
But it is diversionary issues like the Tactile Paths that seem intended to sidetrack critics. The central issue at the moment is not tactile tiles, but the conservation of our heritage and how we look at the question of conservation? Can we allow everybody to become managers of our heritage? Can heritage conservation be handed over to the highest bidder?
We need a uniform policy about heritage and heritage conservation. Whether to involve corporates in conservation can be part of such a policy once experts in the field of conservation, senior historians and archaeologists together come up with a scheme. Heritage conservation is too serious an issue to be handed over to generalist bureaucrats and those out to sell everything to the highest bidder.
You cannot begin to sell off world heritage monuments to those who want to get tax benefits as their CSR while getting free publicity with their names splashed across all signage. The one issue that has come out clearly is that the size of signage is still going to be decided! The question that needs to be asked is why is signage being discussed?
If you are into heritage conservation, stop promoting your brand. If you are into brand promotion go sponsor a metro station or a railway station, but stay away from buying up our heritage. Don’t even think of turning the Red Fort into Bharat Durg or Dalmia Lal Qila
Before you try to get into this business of conservation go see how corporates do it all over the world. Their names appear only in literature about the Monuments, there are no hoardings. Restoration and conservation work began at Humayun’s Tomb in 2007, it has grown over the last 10 years to embrace 30 medieval structures as well as the urban settlement of Nizam-ud-Din. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Dorabji Trust have spent much more than Rs 25 crores without an MOU saying that they will have signage bearing their names all over the place. At the Red Fort, meanwhile, signage and size of signage has already become a big controversy.
What is Rs 25 crores over 5 years? A trifling sum, indeed. To generate Rs 5 crore per year, all we need is 333 foreign tourists paying Rs 500 per visit for 300 days every year or 5555 Indian tourists paying Rs 30 rupees each over the same period. If all you need is Rs 5 crores additional income, then how about introducing staggered fees, conducting organised walks inside the Moti Masjid or inside the Hammam or charge a little bit extra for all those seeking curated walks inside all the areas that you have closed to the public.
This happens all over the world. There is one fee for entering the Leaning Tower of Pisa site, another for those who want to climb the tower. There are hundreds of options to raise money; there is no need to auction the crown jewels to carpetbaggers.
The Johnnies-arrived-lately, with no history in the field of conservation, bidding for sponsoring these heritage monuments are not motivated by any altruistic motives or a newly discovered love for the heritage of India, they are in it because of the sheer exposure their brand will get at a World Heritage Site. Close to 2.5 million Indians and 1.4 lakh foreigners visited the Red Fort in 2010 and the numbers are only growing.
Why, then, does the government want to bring in private players at the risk of besmirching the heritage monument itself?