When things don’t work well its always tempting to say “Let’s privatise”, though the experience of privatisation hasn’t been all that great – particularly when dealing with public facilities like health, public transport, water supply or waste disposal.
The same logic seems be at work with the recently announced policy of the Government of India to allow privatisation of urban heritage, a move that has evoked extreme reaction from both ends of the spectrum.
Some believe privatisation will be a good way to increase efficiency and generate income while others see it as a step signifying abdication of responsibility by a Government, which doesn’t really care much for the heritage monuments of our country anyway.
While there are several examples where privatisation of services has worked well, as in the case of Passport Offices (operated by Tata in Pune), or feeding of data and IT reports online, the key areas of improvements in such cases have been in computerization and online technology and hardly in areas where the public sphere is impacted.
Even in the case of Humayun’s Garden Tomb, it needs to be understood that the excellent restoration work carried out by the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, the role of the Aga Khan Agency was more like an NGO’s than that of a corporate house. The Agency relied on its deep understanding of architecture, art and design instead of treating the project as a profit-making activity which is the normal practice of corporate houses.
Privatisation under ‘Adopt a Heritage’
Let us, now, look more closely at the latest scheme under which private enterprise is being given a free reign in “adopting” a National Monument, a scheme that has most recently seen the historic Red Fort in Delhi being adopted by the Dalmia Bharat group.
This represents breaking new ground as it aims to substantially increase the role and involvement of the private domain in realizing, among others, the following objectives:
- Increase tourist footfall
- Improve overall tourism sector perception
- Increase in employment generation
- Enhance awareness and development of skills and capacity to augment heritage tourism with value added services
- Increase private sector and public sector participation at the identified monument sites
Some of these are quite vague and ambiguous and can be interpreted to suit the vested interests, leading to interference in managing a National Monument.
This is all the more objectionable as the Asset Service Level Guidelines for the “Adopt a Heritage” scheme(Guidelines and MOU) contains trivial topics such as toilet facility, drinking water facility, auto guides, WiFi /Net based facilities, information signage, directional signage, ticketing and the like.
Surely the activities of the kind listed above could be executed through an agreement with an appropriate contractor appointed to build facilities like toilets, directional signs, drinking water equipment etc. Did it really need a private body to holistically adopt a nationally important monument?
There is also an indemnity clause in the MOU meant to indemnify the private body adopting the monument.
The fact that these guidelines are prepared by the Ministry of Tourism (even if in ‘close collaboration’ with the Ministry of Culture and Archeological Survey of India) gives away who’s in the driver’s seat. It is not surprising therefore that issues that should be of primary concern from a cultural and archeological viewpoint, don’t seem to have much visibility in the document.
For handling issues in the public realm, the primary focus needs to be on public good and welfare of the maximum number of citizens, rather than on increasing profits and income by all means possible. The crucial issue, therefore, is not just the capacity of the organisation to carry out conservation related work but whether the organisation has the capacity to go beyond the bottom line of profit and loss.
Equally, if not more important is the role of the regulatory body that will oversee the activity of the appointed agency and ensure that it is proceeding along the right path in a transparent and democratic manner.
The Monuments Authority of India, as it stands today, has severe constraints and limitations. This was brought out clearly when sometime last year, the Government at the centre planned to modify the key condition of the “no development” zone of 100 metres around all national monuments. By recommending that the area of 100 meters could be relaxed for Government projects of “public importance” the Government was in effect allowing the no development zone to be further shrunk.
Although some experts and NGOs filed their written objections against the proposal, the National Monuments Authority itself as a body did nothing to lodge a strong protest against the Government’s proposal.
Now when the issue of privatisation of monuments is on the table, it may be a good time to take a relook at how our monuments can best be looked after, so they become a part of the public realm. These monuments should stay relevant to all sections of society rather than become yet another feather in the cap of corporations, who will only use them as a branding vehicle.
But for this, the role and maturity of the Government will be severely tested. Presently they don’t seem to be seriously concerned about the value of our country’s heritage and may perhaps be content to let the corporate houses decide the fate of our national monuments.