Can Our Heritage Be Leased out for Short-Term Political Gain?

While schemes similar to ‘Adopt a Heritage’ have been adopted in the past, they weren't accompanied by the chest-thumping that is being witnessed now, begging the question – is this only to collect brownie points before the 2019 general elections?

‘Adopt a Heritage’, the scheme launched by the government last September, began trending in May. What raised everyone’s eyebrows was the fact that corporate houses like the Dalmia Bharat Group had won the bid for the Red Fort. Other memorandums of understanding signed under the project are the Mount Stok Kangri trek route in Ladakh by Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), Gangotri temple area and trail to Gaumukh, Uttarakhand by ATOAI and Gandikota Fort, Andhra Pradesh by Dalmia Bharat Limited.

Each passing government at the Centre changes the name and texture of this scheme, but its essence remains the same. Hence, the project is an old wine in a new bottle – a bottle which is now being bequeathed to the corporate sector. The same corporate sector that is recuperating from an economic chaos created by policy changes and fundamental amendments in the indirect tax structure of the country. Consequently, this process results in outsourcing of key governmental responsibilities to a third party, thereby reducing the governments’ accountability.

New name, old scheme

Tracing the origins of the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme, we show how this programme has its roots in previous government policies –  like with the Goods and Services Tax.

In 1996, the National Cultural Fund was established by the culture ministry. Its primary purpose was to protect and conserve India’s heritage by employing a public-private partnership (PPP) model. The programme was started under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s guidance and it didn’t face any red flags from the UPA regime. The resurgence of the scheme under ‘Adopt a Heritage’ with increased reliance on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds seems to highlight the private sector, eliminating the importance of public sector from the partnership. The preservation of monuments has been going on in an effective manner by employing a PPP model through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Humayun’s Tomb and the monuments of Hazrat Nizamuddin basti are classic examples of such an association. It can be noted there was no chest-thumping over these heritage conservation measures as is being done under the current revised programme.

Furthermore, the citizens of this country should also be made aware of the fact that there exist a host of governmental schemes with separate budget allotments. The Central government has initiatives like the National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual, Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) Scheme to beautify and improve amenities and infrastructure at pilgrimage sites to cater to religious, mass and niche tourism in a holistic manner. There is a total 25 destination identified under this initiative.

The PRASAD scheme had an allocation of Rs 100 crore in FY 2017-18 and has a budget of Rs 150 crores in FY 2018-19. Furthermore, the ASI conducts a bio-cultural investigation and collects and preserves documents of scientific interest about the people of India. It had an allocation of Rs 890.32 crores in FY 2017-18 and has a budget of Rs 949.56 crores in FY 2018-19. The Survey through its anthropological research contributes towards the biological, social and cultural heritage of the country. In addition to this, we have the Swachh Bharat cess that is just one of the taxes the Central government imposes on its citizens.

Under the ambit of this scheme, the government collected Rs 3,750 crore in FY 2015-16 and Rs 12,500 crore in FY 2016-2017. A small percentage of this revenue collected by the government can make a huge difference in building or improving the toilets at heritage sites across India.

What is the need for CSR funds?

The purpose of ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme is to provide basic facilities to these heritage sites, which include cleanliness, convenience to the public and easy accessibility. What’s interesting is that there exist a variety of schemes that cater to similar missions and visions that are financed using taxpayer money. With this in mind, an important question arises – Why is that we need to tap into CSR funds for this programme when ASI has the required capabilities for the restoration of Buddhist sites in Afghanistan, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar?

We feel that CSR should rather focus on issues that impact the health of the nation and other key areas that aren’t being effectively managed by the government. Hence, CSR should focus on rural healthcare delivery and sanitation in order to make sure that our demographic dividend doesn’t crumble due to the multiplier effects of poor health.

The corporate sector might bring in effective management strategies and clear deliverables. However, public policy decisions regarding our cultural heritage should have longer time horizons. The short, result-oriented project timeline of ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme seems to be made to collect brownie points before the 2019 general elections.

Though the scheme is a healthy way to infuse the corporates towards nation-building, its intent isn’t clear. Hence, the nation would want to know whether the relation between the ‘Monument Mitras’ with the monuments that are being adopted would shift towards a model like that of the Emirates with Arsenal’s football stadium, in the near future.

Furthermore, the fundamental decision-making process of this programme makes us question whether our historic monuments can be leased out just to ensure short-term political gain? Furthermore, it can be noted that tapping into two different funds to tackle the same problem is something that we seek a reply to. And, if the government is collaborating with corporates using their CSR funds for this programme, will the government reallocate the funds from similar Central government schemes towards other pressing issues like health and sanitation? And, if so, then how?

Shahan Sud is an independent business strategy consultant and can be reached at [email protected] Meghna Jalan is a policy enthusiast/wonk and an environment lover. She can be reached at @meghnajalan

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