India’s monuments need all the help they can get. Are private companies the answer?

Is the Dalmia Red Fort a good idea?
Is the Dalmia Red Fort a good idea?
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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For perhaps the first time ever, heritage conservation is a trending topic in India.

Many are aghast that cement maker Dalmia Bharat has been tapped to take over the management of the Mughal-era Red Fort in New Delhi. It’s one of the many monuments listed under the Indian government’s Adopt a Heritage scheme. Under this programme, announced in September 2017, the so-called “monument mitras” (friends of monuments) from the private sector will be tasked with overseeing the management of India’s long-neglected historic sites. The list (pdf) includes everything from the old Mughal capital Fatehpur Sikri to the Chand Baori stepwell in Rajasthan.

On paper, the goal is to make these often poorly-maintained monuments and historic sites more tourist-friendly by getting firms to invest in much-needed infrastructure as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. Those who adopt an Indian monument will have to commit to building functioning toilets and implementing wifi facilities and proper signage, among other things. They will also be responsible for operating museums, shops, and cafes. In exchange, they get to feature their brand names on souvenirs and signs.

It says a lot about heritage conservation in India that such basic amenities are still a rare sight at even the most-visited monuments. But the news of Dalmia Bharat, a conglomerate best known for its sugar and power businesses, getting involved in the upkeep of one of India’s most iconic structures has many convinced that the government is handing over history to private companies with no experience or accountability.

Why the “crown jewels?”

The Red Fort was built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who’s perhaps better known as the man behind the Taj Mahal. Located on the banks of River Yamuna in the national capital, the red sandstone structure has a particularly special place in modern Indian history: It was the country’s political centre—though only symbolic by the mid 1850s. Since India gained independence from the British in 1947, every successive prime minister has raised the national flag at the Red Fort on Aug. 15.

So the fact that this important site is among the first to be put in the hands of the private sector has caused concern.

“My personal feeling is that the really great monuments of any nation, whether it’s the Lincoln Memorial in America or Stonehenge or Westminister Abbey (in the UK) or the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort here, should not be leased out for a corporate experiment,” the historian William Dalrymple told Quartz.

“I’m absolutely 100% behind private contributions to the nation’s heritage. What seems hasty about this (scheme) is letting loose the crown jewels, letting out the finest monuments first of all without experimenting with lesser monuments. And to a group with no previous interest in history,” he added.

In response to the furore caused by the news, the ministry of tourism released a statement on April 28, emphasising that the Adopt a Heritage scheme was for the development, maintenance, and operation of tourism amenities, and that “no handing over of monuments” would be involved.

“The whole idea is it’s iconic sites which bring in the big numbers, and these are India’s pride,” Alphons Kannanthanam, minister of state for tourism, told Quartz. “So I think we need to start with the big things and sort out those monuments first.”

But critics have pointed out problems with the scheme. For one thing, the deal between the government and the Dalmia Bharat Group includes an indemnity clause (pdf) that could protect the latter even if it damages any part of the ancient structure. The deal also allows the Dalmia name to be featured on souvenirs, banners, and signs across the Red Fort. Though the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the arm of the ministry of culture tasked with conserving monuments, does have approval rights, many are concerned about whether the signs will be discreet and tasteful.

Kannanthanam argues that the ASI will remain in control of the monument and all changes will require its permission.

“They’re not going to allow any huge hoardings. It will be so discreet that it will be very difficult to make out where the boards are,” he said. 

Historians in India are also concerned about conservation.

“The Red Fort is falling apart,” said Rana Safvi, author of several books on Delhi’s history. She added that the monument mitras may be tasked with maintenance but it’s not clear who will address the more pressing problems of conservation and restoration, tasks that can only be performed by experts with experience. While NGOs such as the Aga Khan Trust and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) have been doing such work in India for years, there’s no sign that they’ve been asked to help.

Moreover, in the past few years, history, especially its material aspects like monuments, texts, and teaching, has been politically fraught, and has often sparked violence and aggression in the country. In this context, private management of important sites could add a whole new dimension to the tense discourse.

“Whoever becomes the monument mitra also runs the interpretation centre and the audio guides. In this they give the history of the monument, so what history is it going to be since history is such a burning topic these days?” Safvi asked.

But while all these concerns are extremely valid, there is another side to the story: After 70 years of independence, nothing else has worked to improve the basic experience of visiting India’s heritage sites.

Desperate times

With a dire lack of funding and trained and visionary manpower, the ASI has a fairly dreadful track record when it comes to maintaining monuments. In fact, many of them have even gone missing under its watch. As a result, heritage sites across the country have for long been in bad shape.

“The fact (is) that after so many years we still have monuments where these basic facilities are actually not provided. You go to any one of these places and the facilities are actually abysmal,” said Swapna Liddle, a historian and the convener of the Delhi chapter of INTACH. ”Nothing has been done. So if this model works, then why not?”

She noted that despite its expertise, INTACH simply wouldn’t have had the funds to take charge of a project of this scale. And though signage and interpretation centres are sticking points, proper supervision could help the project succeed in upgrading India’s monuments.

“Certainly, I would not like to see the ASI abdicating control. There will have to be an overall overseeing of this whole operation, and I’m sure there will be mechanisms within. After all the monument is still owned by the ASI,” Liddle said.

And there is a precedent of private companies with no conservation experience successfully reviving heritage sites. A few years ago, Italy was embroiled in a very similar national debate after its cash-strapped government allowed corporates to step in to rescue iconic monuments such Rome’s Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum, which were facing damage and discolouration. The designer brands Fendi, Tod’s, and Bulgari actually went on to spend millions of euros on months-long restoration projects.

Of course, India is not Italy, and it won’t be a walk in the park to ensure that long-neglected monuments are brought up to international standards. Which is perhaps why the sudden push for a very specific kind of private sector help, as opposed to increasing the public funds available for culture and conservation (currently well under 1% of the national budget), improving the ASI itself, or even capitalising on the experience and expertise of established conservation organisations, has many feeling distinctly concerned for the future of India’s past.