A fading Taj and shabby museums: India spends less than 1% of its annual budget on culture and it shows

Show me the money.
Show me the money.
Image: EPA/Jagadeesh NV
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Art and culture aren’t usually a priority for most governments around the world.

When it comes to budget cuts, it’s the government-run cultural institutions, be it the Arts Council of England or the US National Endowment for the Arts, that suffer first, losing out on funding in favour of departments that are viewed as more practical, like defence or atomic energy.

And that perception of art and culture being less important is echoed in India, Asia’s third-largest economy. The country’s ministry of culture manages the conservation of monuments and heritage sites via the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), as well as running the national archives, libraries, and national museums. But though its budget has grown over the years, benefiting from India’s expanding economy, its allocation remains well under 1% of the total annual budget.

While there are other ministries that are involved in the promotion of different elements of Indian culture, such as handloom textiles (ministry of textiles), cinema, and radio (ministry of information & broadcasting), it’s the ministry of culture that has the primary task of promoting and preserving India’s cultural heritage.

Yet, for the 2016-17 financial year, the ministry was assigned Rs2,500 crore (pdf), just 0.14% of the government of India’s total expense outlay of Rs1,729,508.5 crore. In comparison, the defence ministry was allocated over 19% of the budget.

The effects of this relatively tiny allocation are clear: despite India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, many of its national museums remain uninspiring, hardly drawing any visitors despite their incredibly affordable entry prices. And several heritage sites, including the iconic Taj Mahal, are in a bad state, suffering from the effects of poor maintenance and pollution. Some important monuments under the ASI’s care, including prehistoric megaliths and temple ruins, have even gone missing.

In contrast, countries like France and the UK far outpace India when it comes to spending on culture and it shows: the two nations have thousands of museums dedicated to everything from art and sculpture to taxidermy, which are visited by millions of foreign and local tourists every year. Moreover, heritage sites are maintained well, and creativity in the arts is encouraged.

China is also spending big on the arts as part of a larger plan to build a “great nation of culture“ (paywall). It allocated a whopping $3.5 billion to public culture services in 2015, and over the years cities across the country have witnessed an explosion in the number of museums. Today, there are over 4,000 of them in China.

Here’s how India’s central government spending on culture compares to those of other countries around the world (US data reflects the federal government allocation to the National Endowment for the Arts):

With India set to unveil its budget for the 2017-18 financial year, funding for the arts is unlikely to change dramatically. But while it is understandable that economic growth remains the focus in a country where millions live below the poverty line, the importance of art and culture as drivers of social progress can’t be ignored.

As the Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen puts it,

“Development seen in a human perspective, rather than grossly in terms of the expansion of material means, must take note of the enrichment of people’s lives. The performing arts cannot but have a major role in making our lives richer and finer. In this sense, the creative wealth represented by the tradition and practice of the performing arts is constitutively a part of the process of development.”

Something needs to change to ensure that India’s cultural wealth survives and thrives well into the future for the benefit of all its citizens. And that might mean it’s the private sector that has to make up for the funding shortfall.