India's Heritage Is Not an Economic Problem to Solve

A recent report by the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister recommends 'rationalising' how monuments of national importance are protected by the ASI.

A recent government report, titled ‘Report on Monuments of National Importance: The Urgent Need for Rationalization‘, deals with the management of historic buildings, particularly those designated as Monuments of National Importance (MNI). MNIs are officially conserved by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which functions in accordance with The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 2010 (AMASR Act 2010), but this report was prepared by Sanjeev Sanyal, Jayasimha K.R. and Apurv Kumar Mishra of the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister (EAC-PM).

This distinction is important to note, because it provides compelling insights into how our contemporary society manages, or mismanages, its civilisational legacy 75 years after independence.

In the past, the subject of heritage management had seldom attracted public attention, but given the pedigree of this report, and the contentious nature of its recommendations, it needs to be highlighted in the public domain to encourage civil society to become active interlocutors in the decision-making process.

This report is a product of its times

The cover of the ‘Report on Monuments of National Importance: The Urgent Need for Rationalization’.

MNIs are considered the synecdoche of the nation’s prolific and varied cultural heritage, but how our society engages with it is paradoxical. In the abstract, the idea of MNIs is generally celebrated as a badge of national identity, but in reality, it is often treated as a problem, particularly when some are seen to obstruct important infrastructure or development projects.

This fuels the conservation versus development binary that defines both government policies and public aspirations. As the pace of development has increased, it has resulted in compromising or subverting the laws enacted to conserve MNIs. The sources of this paradox have deep roots, which need to be critically evaluated in order to understand the rationale of this report.

This report is also the product of the style of governance that Narendra Modi ushered in when he became the prime minister of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led government in 2014, and one of its key markers is how decisions are made. Instead of following well-established protocols of democratic consultations before arriving at decisions, it is in the Prime Minister’s Office that major policy issues are now identified and analysed, and their solutions formulated. Thereafter, Executive Orders are issued to the relevant offices of the government for implementation.

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This has become the standard operating procedure (SOP) even in matters related to routine governance. It is a highly centralised and secretive process and critics have analysed its regressive nature because it has embroiled our nation in bitter social and political discourse. The government, however, defends it by emphasising that ‘tough’ decisions have to be taken for the larger public good and invariably brushes aside criticisms as the rant of habitual nay-sayers who want to keep the country shackled to the past as they proceed to vigorously pursue their objectives.

The ‘Report on Monuments of National Importance’ is a product of this authoritarian policy-making process and its elite provenance is clearly identified on the title page. It proposes to ‘rationalise’ how MNIs are protected by the ASI, and in keeping with the now familiar SOP, the text is peppered with the observation that the implementation of many of the changes it proposes “can be done through an executive order”. But it is not a secret document – it is available online and its contents have already been reported in the media.

Perhaps the government is confident that as in the past, neither civil society nor the ASI will oppose this report, but for reasons I will discuss below, and in spite of the possibility that these observations too will be dismissed as the rant of a habitual nay-sayer, it still needs to be pointed out that this pedigreed report is a deeply flawed document.

Critically evaluating this report is a doubly challenging task. For one, one knows that the instrumentalist policies of the government disdain engaging with heritage issues, because in other heritage-related projects such as the Redevelopment of Central Vista in New Delhi and the modernisation of the Vishwanath Temple Precinct in Varanasi, it has unabashedly demonstrated its proclivity to prioritise the creation of ‘New India’ over the imperatives to conserve heritage. For another, in spite of the powerful emotional connect our society has with its heritage, the technical imperatives of heritage management, which is the subject of the report, is terra incognita to a majority of its stakeholders. Nevertheless, deconstructing the report is necessary for the record.

At the outset, one needs to highlight the fact that this document did not emanate from the ASI, the department of the government whose specific remit is the subject matter of the report – the protection of MNIs. This important policy document was prepared by economists who, true to their métier, have ingenuously adduced that the primary objective of heritage conservation is “preserving the economics of our culture and the culture of our economics”, as the lead author of this report put it at a recent lecture he delivered at the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture (INTACH). The analytic parameters of this report, therefore, engages with quantifiable data and, not surprisingly, its major recommendation is to reduce the number of MNIs (‘unwieldy numbers’) in order to improve the functioning of ASI.

The real problems in the ASI

Viewing the problems of heritage management through the economist’s lens elides the more fundamental problems with the functioning of ASI. The agency was established by a colonial government to protect the exceptional examples of architectural heritage of a culture perceived as exotic and alien, that have now become MNIs. In a post-colonial context, why should the ASI not reassess its colonially defined responsibilities and construct more authentic meanings of the cultural heritage of our society, in which the MNIs constitute only one category, albeit one that is perceived to be iconic. The report, in sum, ends up rationalising colonial misrepresentations of our cultural heritage by keeping intact, and further legitimising, the monument-centric agenda of ASI.

This agenda is deeply complicit in perpetuating the colonial ‘civilising mission’ and therefore local heritage is still treated as the other. The ASI was established in 1861 to meet colonial ends, and it is so proud of this genealogy that its work culture has not changed. It still considers John Marshall’s Conservation Manual, which was drafted in 1925, as its Bible.

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So deep is ASI’s faith in this manual that when, as part of the agenda to mark its  sesquicentennial anniversary in 2010, it decided to update it, and accommodate indigenous conservation traditions that the colonial objectives underpinning the manual  had ignored, it ended up abandoning the exercise after a few desultory discussions with outside experts. This was on account of the realisation that the reforms it had embarked on were too radical for its colonial mindset  to absorb.

In 2014, ASI did bring out its ‘new’ Conservation Manual, which turned out to be a virtual clone of the original, with minor additions and alterations. Not surprisingly, in a postcolonial society, ASI’s ideology and imperatives of conserving MNIs come across as an alienating imposition on our modernising initiatives – one that feeds the politics of ‘making history’ that this government leverages for political gain.

This antediluvian mindset is the pathology that the report should have attempted to rationalise. But the authors of the report have plucked the low-hanging fruits on the tree, leaving the major problems confronting ASI unattended. Their recommendations are, in fact, not new insights, because they have been pointed out by critics earlier, but coming as it does from the highest echelons of the government, the report may be treated as a firman, and whatever its deficiencies, it will be used to reform the ASI.

Where the focus should be

While this report is a flawed document, it nevertheless contains three useful recommendations to improve the protection of MNIs  that merit further consideration through wider public dialogue. First, it suggests that the responsibilities of maintenance of monuments, which is assigned to ASI, and the development of surrounding areas, which is assigned to the National Monuments Authority of India (MNA), should be merged, with NMA being in charge, and the main focus of ASI should be on archaeology research, excavation, restorations and maintenance of museums, and the NMA should function as an autonomous body under ASI. Such ideas have been floated earlier, too. The question is, how will reassigning the same actors to play different roles better secure the future of our past?

Second, the anomalies and inadequacies in the list of MNIs should be rectified, such as deleting from the list monuments that no longer exist. For example, there are many kos minars and graves of colonial soldiers that have been destroyed in the wake of urban development. Then there is the strange case of the statue of John Nicholson, which was erected in Kashmiri Gate area in Delhi in 1900, and officially exported to Northern Ireland in 1958, but it still continues to be listed as a MNI. The report also points out that the ASI does not have a credible SOP to declare potential historic buildings as MNIs. It suggests that the detailed and multi-layered procedures described in the operational guidelines of UNESCO could be a model to follow.

The authors of the report do not know that closer to home, ASI could study the SOP that INTACH has developed to list over 80,000 unidentified historical buildings across the country, which have been used by municipal and state governments to protect buildings in their jurisdiction. Again, the question is, whichever SOP the ASI adopts, can an old dog can be trained to learn new tricks?

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And third, allocation of funding to protect MNIs should be “exponentially” increased and other revenue streams identified, such as retaining entry fees to monuments (which is currently credited to the Consolidated Fund of India), and developing more robust strategies to mobilise funds for the National Culture Fund (NCF). The EAC-PM may, of course, know better, but it is my understanding that the NCF has in its kitty more funds than it is able to effectively put to use for the purposes it was set up for. So, the greater problem is to streamline the functioning of the NCF to utilise the funds it already has, and continues to receive, before seeking new revenue sources.

The inadequacies of this report stem from the authoritarian culture of decision-making that is being cultivated by the Modi government. Their inspiration, and model, appears to be the haloed myth of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. The government’s authoritarian culture has wreaked havoc on the historically evolved Idea of India, not to mention the Constitution of the Indian Republic, but in this report, we get a glimpse of how this dispensation will dismantle our civilisational legacy as well.

A.G. Krishna Menon is an architect, urban planner and conservation consultant.