This is about the current brouhaha over the Monument Mitra scheme of the Government of India which marks the marriage of progressive capitalism with conservative socialism. In an ideal world of cultural purists, the country’s heritage should be unattached to commercial consideration but pragmatism often plays out differently. The bitter truth is that India’s heritage monuments are being forced to swallow their pride lately.

The recent changes in the Policy imperatives on cultural heritage stress on embracing private bodies, corporations, NGOs etc. in their preservation, maintenance and beautification. Such institutional changes in the cultural heritage sector aroused much controversy which is unwarranted and goes against the interest of our valuable heritage monuments that are crying out for preservation and maintenance.

India is renowned across the world for its rich and diverse cultural and natural heritage. It is an undeniable fact that we need to do more to preserve and protect our rich cultural legacy before it is too late. There are so many heritage monuments dotted in our cultural landscape spreading across the length and breadth of the country, but each one of them is on the verge of decay. In a few decades, many of the splendid architectural marvels are likely to become heaps of rubble.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is in charge of preservation of these monuments is hugely understaffed and fund starved; hence the alternative method of fund arrangement is quite imperative and the need of the hour.

It is, indeed, a delicate matter to involve private sector to fund the restoration of government-owned monuments and it needs to be handled with care. In a democracy like ours, good-intentioned ideas, schemes and policies are often marred by needless verbalisation of the people. When the question of preserving our cultural heritage comes up, the dogmatic thought of “Government alone should and must do” it needs to be shed, so as to boost the Indian tourism sector. Tourism being a major engine of economic growth and an important source of employment and foreign exchange earnings, it is desirable to maintain the beauty of our heritage monuments and to make them tourist-friendly.

In a country like Italy, too, so many luxury brands have come forward to rescue the monuments which were on the verge of decay but not without heated debate. Taking cue from Western countries, the ‘Adopt a Heritage Scheme’ was launched on 27 September, 2017 by the Ministry of Tourism to seek participation of private sector companies, public sector companies and corporate individuals to adopt the sites and to take up the responsibility for making our heritage and tourism more sustainable through conservation and development. The scheme focuses on development and maintenance of world-class tourist infrastructure and amenities like public conveniences, ease of access, clean and secure environment, illumination and night viewing facilities for an overall inclusive tourist experience.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Tourism which examined the government’s “Adopt-a-Heritage” scheme noted that it was a welcome step on the part of the Ministry of Tourism. The Committee recommended that under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) umbrella, major corporates may be compelled to adopt heritage sites.

The stage was already set as early as 1 April 2014 by the erstwhile UPA Government with the inclusion of item (e) under Schedule VII of Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013 dealing with CSR spending that calls for the protection of national heritage, art and culture, including restoration of buildings and sites of historical importance and works of art; setting up of public libraries, promotion and development of traditional arts and handicrafts.
Our socialist logic and mind-set demands an answer to some questions.

Should private enterprise be involved in preserving heritage? Should the fate of centuries-old relics be left to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)? The answer is slightly complex, but many European models of heritage restoration and beautification offer a convincing answer. The latest inspiration is found on our own soil. The once-decaying Humayun’s Tomb, has been nicely restored and refurbished by the Aga Khan Foundation partnering with the ASI. The same Aga Khan Trust beautified and restored the Shalimar Garden in Lahore without any objection from any historian of Pakistan.

Restoration of Humayun’s Tomb has offered a new model for conservation as this was the first such instance of a public-private partnership. This model should inspire our cultural policy makers and administrators since it heralds the possibility of improvement in our age-old monuments. So far, letters of intent have been handed over to 33 agencies for 98 monuments, including the SBI Foundation for Jantar Mantar, Delhi.

Legally speaking, the terms and conditions of the contract do not alter the legal status of the property, instead the entity stands to gain in terms of publicity through signage and plaques. If regulated and supervised properly, this scheme might prove a wonder. Under the present model, the Archaeological Survey of India will continue to do the traditional preservation and restoration work which is its forte, whereas the Monument Mitras/ adopting corporates are expected to confine themselves to providing various amenities for visitors etc.

In fact, the opaqueness surrounding the deals needs to be shed for transparency so as to avoid uncomfortable questions like, “Why is Dalmia group, which admittedly knows a lot about cement, power, etc, but has no expertise in the upkeep of heritage monuments, entrusted to adopt a top-tier heritage monument like the Red Fort?” It is also imperative for the Central Government to take the consent of the state where the monument is situated so as to avoid another conflict of federal spirit versus heritage maintenance.

The issue of heritage protection, management and marketing needs to be looked at professionally in modern context rather than spreading rumours such as “Red Fort has been sold” and bombardment of unnecessary criticism sans any substance. The latest policy shift in relation to cultural heritage will not only revitalise our culture but also important economic assets like our heritage monuments.

The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India