Monday, 30th October 2017

E- paper

The Italian precedent

Dalmia and Mamma mia

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 6.05.18
  •  

The op-eds in support of the government's 'Adopt a Heritage' scheme (notably by Barkha Dutt in The Washington Post and Shekhar Gupta in ThePrint) have made several points. They have emphasized the awfulness of the status quo (the shabbiness of our heritage sites) as a reason for enlisting private capital, criticized the inconsistency of the government's liberal critics who are happy to have the Aga Khan Trust for Culture restore one of India's greatest historical neighbourhoods but cavil (in Gupta's words) at a Marwari company being given temporary charge of the Red Fort and cited what they see as global precedents for the Adopt a Heritage initiative: the restoration of the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Rialto Bridge and other sites with the aid of private corporations like Tod's, Bulgari and Fendi, in return for branding rights.

The first point is well taken. The Archaeological Survey of India, which has charge of most of the heritage sites offered for 'adoption', is short of money and often short of imagination. While Indians owe the ASI a great debt for securing their heritage buildings, the upkeep of these heritage sites and the experience of people who visit them can be radically improved and corporate funding could help enormously to hire the professionals and experts (Indian or foreign) whose job it is to maintain and market monuments.

The question then is not whether the State should accept corporate money (it should); the question is the regulatory frame within which this money is solicited and spent. "Why should culture, history and archaeology be the monopoly of the state?" asks Gupta, rhetorically. "Why can't private capital, enterprise and efficiency get involved?" I don't think Gupta is asking for the State's ownership of Hampi or the Taj Mahal to be diluted, so defining corporate involvement is the real challenge for the State in its capacity as the owner of these sites.

As it happens, there is a model for heritage renewal through the cooperation of government agencies and the private sector. The AKTC, working closely with the ASI, has restored not just a range of monuments in Delhi, but a whole historical neighbourhood. Dutt accuses critics of the Adopt a Heritage scheme of being selective in their criticism of private investment in public heritage: why is it alright for the AKTC to take over the restoration of one of Mughal India's greatest mausoleums but wrong for Dalmia Bharat to do 'something similar' by adopting the Red Fort?

There's a straightforward answer to this question: the AKTC has decades of expertise in the conservation and restoration of Islamicate heritage the world over. To choose it as a partner in the renewal of Delhi's great medieval neighbourhoods and historical districts is common sense. There is no inconsistency involved in endorsing the AKTC's restoration efforts and questioning the appropriateness of sub-contracting the management of India's greatest historical sites to private companies with no expertise in the culture or business of heritage.

To cite the AKTC's work as a precedent for the government's Adopt a Heritage scheme and then to indict liberals for hypocrisy for supporting the one and not the other is a category mistake. AKTC does restoration; Dalmia Bharat does cement. The inconsistency is Dutt's. Having invoked the Humayun's Tomb restoration in support of the government's scheme, Dutt then goes to some lengths to demonstrate that that the two are nothing alike because these corporate foster parents would have no "access to the main monument and no power to restore or repair"or to interpret the history of the monument. That would remain the prerogative of the ASI. She does this to reassure panic-stricken liberals that Dalmia Bharat's authority as temporary guardian of the Red Fort would be confined to managing its 'peripheral facilities' - marketing, ticketing, toilets, access, walkways - not the structures themselves.

This is not reassuring. The memorandum of understanding signed between the government and Dalmia Bharat specifies landscape restoration under the 'Basic Amenities' the adopting company is meant to provide. Consider for a moment that the Aga Khan Trust's first responsibility in the Humayun's Tomb complex was the restoration of the Mughal garden or charbagh that frames the main monument. The AKTC spent two years researching what the gardens might have looked like in Akbar's time and figuring out how its defunct irrigation system worked before breaking ground.

The Red Fort MoU mandates that landscape restoration be carried out inside 12 months of its signing. The Taj Mahal is up for adoption too; will the restoration of its historic gardens be within the remit of GMR Sports or ITC (two companies in the running for this prize)? Among the 'Advanced Amenities' to be supplied by the adopting company is a thousand-squarefoot Visitor Facility Centre, also to be built within 12 months. Far from being confined to peripheral facilities, Dalmia Bharat is required to undertake rapid construction and landscape restoration as part of its terms of reference. How is a cement-making company expected to do this aesthetically and authentically inside a year when the AKTC, whose reason for being is the restoration of Islamicate heritage, took twice the time just to research the charbagh restoration?

Gupta and Dutt's clinching argument seems to be that the Italians do it too. Adopt a Heritage is, according to them, no different from the initiatives taken by central and municipal governments in Italy to encourage private investment in heritage sites. 'There are global parallels too..." says Dutt and goes on to cite Bulgari's involvement in the restoration of the Spanish Steps and Tod's (a luxury shoe maker) funding of the cleaning of the Colosseum. Gupta cites the Trevi Fountain (Fendi), the Rialto Bridge (Diesel) and Prada's investment in Venice as other international precedents.

Except that these are neither parallels nor precedents. First, these are restoration projects where Adopt a Heritage is avowedly about the upgradation of tourist facilities (though, as we have seen, the dividing line between the two is blurred.) Secondly, Bulgari, Tod's, Fendi, Diesel and Prada are funding the restoration of these monuments, not taking over their operation for contracted periods of time. There is a fundamental difference between a company funding the improvement of a major heritage site undertaken by expert restorers and professionals and a company (with no heritage credentials) proposing and executing those improvements itself. Dutt and Gupta conflate the one with the other in their arguments.

Both writers seem to see critical reaction to the scheme as a desi liberal tic, a form of politically motivated outrage. It isn't; the criticism is part of a necessary debate about how India's past ought to be conserved and it doesn't have to be political. It's worth remembering that Tod's's agreement with the Italian ministry of culture and the Rome municipality was, according to the Financial Times, investigated by "Three separate institutions — the nation's court auditor, the Rome magistracy and the antitrust authority." And this is as it should be: the Colosseum defines Italy in the way in which the Taj or the Sun Temple or the Red Fort define aspects of India. Given that the Indian State, unlike its Italian counterpart, actually plans to hand these sites over to corporations for contracted lengths of time, public scrutiny and criticism should be at least as intense... unless, of course, we think of private capital as a libation, as a kind of ganga jal.

The notion that whingeing liberals have cornered the market on the protests against K.J. Alphons's brainchild is the organizing idea behind Gupta's piece. This would have been an interesting insight had it been true, only it isn't. In Assam, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the All Assam Students Union have asked the Central government to immediately shelve the idea of putting up four heritage sites in upper Assam, including the Kaziranga sanctuary, for corporate adoption. There are many things AASU can be accused of, but reflexive liberalism isn't one of them. In Goa, those incorrigible lefties, Vijai Sardesai and Manohar Ajgaonkar, ministers of archaeology and tourism, respectively, in that state's BJP-run government, expressed alarm about the proposed adoption of churches in Old Goa, including the Basilica of Bom Jesus where Saint Francis Xavier's relics are stored. They stressed the religious sanctity of the Basilica and the need to consult the church leadership before taking such a step. They seemed radically unenthused by the prospect of their churches being adopted by Drishti Lifesaving Pvt Ltd in Phase II.

The moral of the story is this: the questions raised by Alphons's scheme are bigger and more important than incestuous quarrels between Indian liberals and their critics. Given what we know about the initiative and the defences mounted on its behalf, those questions remain unanswered.