Since a new government in Delhi is attempting to reprioritize the agenda for India, travel and tourism should definitely be placed on the front-burner. Every proud country celebrates its history and legacy and uses the past to energize the present, keeping the repository of cultures alive for future generations. Increasingly, ‘culture’, in its broadest sense, has been used successfully as a tool for soft diplomacy. India has a profound legacy to share and influence the world with. In such a volatile age as ours, the lessons from the past can help comprehend the present as well as give society a sense of purpose and strength in identity.
Unfortunately, India has failed miserably to draw upon this layered and nuanced legacy to build a space which will allow the legatees to be creative. Wherever you turn in this modern nation state, there are symbols and motifs that define the disjointed and uncaring mindset of the men and women who govern that space. Inherited spaces and buildings are neglected. New constructions are slip-shod, lacking in the basics of quality and aesthetics. India, with much to showcase from its past, has left much to be desired in its present avatar.
Correcting this intellectual and physical apathy is an imperative. It is relatively simple to initiate. Tourism should have a set of guidelines and the practitioners should be enabled by those norms to deliver services that should beat the world at the travel-culture-tourism game. India has approximately 7 million foreign visitors each year. This is roughly the same number of people visiting the British Museum! Why should this be? The ministry of tourism is not an enabler. In a country that has many cultures woven into it, one overarching monolith in New Delhi sitting in a concrete cage from where the babus fly around the world on junkets is clearly not the way to go. It restricts the creativity and entrepreneurship that are waiting to be tapped into. If the government needs to be downsized, this ministry should be replaced by a tourism authority that is structured to lay out the rules of the business.
The other restructuring should involve the coming together of crafts, the arts, skills and textiles under the jurisdiction of a single authority. In a changing world where ‘handmade’ products carry more weight than those that are ‘mass-produced’, India must ensure that the treasures created by the hand are celebrated and preserved. This would lift millions of skilled men and women, who have not benefited from a faulty restructuring devised by the World Bank that has no understanding of ancient civilizations and their inherent strengths, out of the morass as well as preserve artistic traditions. Such human resources keep society intact in volatile environments. India is the largest treasure trove of fragile, but special, skills.
Finally, India’s architectural heritage, museums, ancient cities, libraries and bhandaars, must be governed with respect. Babugiri must be put away in order to restore and protect and, in some cases, reinvent. If we were to select 500-odd parliamentary constituencies and develop in each a nodal point where music, dance, craft, art and cuisine could be showcased with the help of weekly workshops and community events, it would have a salutary effect and reignite what lies suppressed in the DNA of a diverse and plural India. Involving local residents in such initiatives will serve as a bulwark against a lazy State apparatus that has allowed much to be diluted under its watchful eye.
This alone could revive the forgotten. It would, most certainly, pull India out of the imitative phase that has destroyed the idea and ethos of this rather splendid subcontinent.