India has allowed its fine treasures, which were manifestations of its diverse culture, to vanish from sight. Horrendous government policies that appear to be ‘stringent’ have succeeded in destroying vast chunks of our historical legacy. Hand-me-down regulations and Acts from the colonial past persist in a modern and free India as ‘native’ babus fight to rationalize redundant rules. Bribery and corruption win over sane legislations. The uninitiated, unaware about history, art and architecture, disinterested in conservation, serve the State in this domain. These men and women are responsible for the degradation of India’s art as well as its architectural and historical spaces.
Across the world, old civilizations have used their past to keep alive national pride in the present. India is doing just the opposite. Here, jingoism prevails over knowledge and comprehension. If one looks at India’s monuments, forts or even its state and national museums, the neglect is apparent. The valuable collections of books and manuscripts in the Khuda Baksh and the Rampur Raza Library have not been given their pride of place. There is no excuse whatsoever for any government to ignore such repositories of the nation’s diverse history. There are ample funds in the ministries of culture and human resource development. These can be easily allocated to such institutions to ensure that they are nurtured and protected. But the problems of ignorance and ineptitude continue to plague such efforts. Historical sites need to be categorized into separate tiers. National treasures must be conserved by trained experts through a public-private initiative where the stakeholders — the people of India — are represented by experts instead of babus only concerned with perks.
Sensible, international rules need to be framed and enforced. Blanket legislations — no new buildings within 500 metres of a monument — need to be rewritten by a committee comprising experts and private practitioners, including younger lawyers with a modern mindset, and babus as the ex-officio representative to frame new laws and statutory caveats concerning graded monuments. Grading is essential, and the time-bound task must be given to the departments concerned so that they can complete it by partnering students of architecture schools.
Ideas and positive initiatives taken by other nations should be studied carefully. India should create new parameters within which public-private partnerships should operate to clean up the mess of 60 years and more. Ironically, the art that left the shores of Bharat during British rule is better preserved in foreign museums. Our museums are shoddy and pathetic. India’s historical sites are unkempt and, often, unprotected. But the babus jump about with the ‘rule book’ whenever citizens want to participate in such collaborations. The sad truth is that the aspirations of the people in charge of our heritage do not match with those of the grand civilizational past. They do not want any outside interference lest their inadequacies show up like blisters. For a start, the Antiquities Act needs to be overhauled to suit a modern nation state. All antiquities must be liberated from the endless paperbaazi and declarations that the government demands as long as trading, buying and selling remain within the borders. The export of antiquities must come under stringent scrutiny. As Indians, it is our fundamental right to own and protect our treasures. Governments cannot deny us that privilege. No country denies its citizens the right to buy or sell national art as long as these transactions remain within national borders. We need to mature as a nation and address these ridiculous rules.