New Delhi: The opposition to the Narendra Modi government’s plan to ‘hand over’ the Red Fort in Delhi – and a number of other monuments – to private players and corporates for ‘maintenance’ appears to stem more from concerns surrounding the ruling party’s past, which has involved bringing down a mosque and dropping the Taj Mahal from Uttar Pradesh’s state tourism booklet, than the conditions under which the designated ‘Monument Mitras’ – as these private parties are referred to under the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ project – would operate.
Ever since the April 24 announcement of Red Fort being handed over to Dalmia Bharat Limited, the opposition has been up in arms over the move. With the Karnataka assembly elections just days away and those to the Lok Sabha due in about a year, the move has given the opposition an opportunity to portray the BJP as a party that cares little about the country’s heritage.
Even the tourism ministry’s clarification that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Dalmia Bharat Limited was only for maintaining the Red Fort for five years and that there was no “handing over” involved did not help.
BJP’s past cause for worry for artists, conservationists
The anger and apprehension is not confined to the political class. On May 2, PTI reported that several historians, conservationists and artists are also opposed to the move. Artist Vivan Sundaram, historian Mushirul Hasan and theatre actor M.K. Raina are among the signatories to a statement from the cultural group SAHMAT, which raises the Babri Masjid demolition while urging the rescinding of the MoU between government agencies and Dalmia Bharat Ltd.
“The present regime in power has an unsavoury past in regard to our heritage. It felt no compunction when its followers destroyed a 450-year-old monument of architectural importance in 1992 just because it was a mosque. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has long been propagating the cause of declaring all major medieval monuments, including the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort, as Hindu structures,” the statement said.
The agency report also quoted historian Irfan Habib as declaring the agreement to be “flawed” on the grounds that if the scheme to adopt heritage monuments was to be implemented, “they should have experimented with a lesser-known structure and not the iconic Red Fort.”
Habib questioned “the kind of commentary through audio books and others that will be supplied to the tourists” and termed the move akin to “selling” the historic fort to a private player.
Terms of agreement, financial prudence behind move also questioned
The Indian History Congress, the largest body of professional Indian historians, has raised also questions about the terms of the agreement. The company, according to a statement from the body, has no claim to any experience in maintenance, conservation, preservation and interpretation of monuments. It further added: “there is ample room to fear that in order to attract tourist traffic it may propagate false or unproven interpretations of particular structures in the complex. Once such claims are set afloat, especially when they are of a sectarian character, it is found extremely difficult to get rid of them.”
Another heritage conservationist, Sohail Hashmi, has also questioned the logic behind the finances mentioned in the agreement.
“For Rs 5 crore, the corporate is going to give clean toilets, tactile paths and one or two restaurants, and in exchange it will get to put signages on the Diwan-i-Aam, Mumtaz Mahal, Rang Mahal inside the Red Fort. They will be able to do free publicity to close to 2.1 million people every day. They get to show they are fulfilling the corporate social responsibility and their names gets associated with a world heritage site,” Hashmi told PTI.
He further charged that “the question is not just about money but also about bartering the symbol of the country’s unified struggle against the British. I see this step as part of a series of attacks to dismantle the symbols of resistance against the imperial forces.”
‘Project has nothing to do with conservation, most concerns misconstrued’
However, if A.G.K. Menon, founding member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and well-known architect, urban planner and conservation consultant, is to be believed, many of these concerns about conservation and damage to the monument are “misconstrued and misconstructed”.
Speaking to The Wire, Menon – who has undertaken several pioneering urban conservation projects in India on behalf of INTACH and authored a number of documents setting guidelines for conservation practices in India, including the Charter for the Conservation of Unprotected Architectural Heritage and Sites in India, 2004 – said, “The project has nothing to do with conservation of the building. The heritage building has not been handed over to Dalmia for conservation work. What has been done is that they have been given the scope to do services, things like landscaping, toilets, canteens etc.”
“But,” he said, “the story that is going out is that how Dalmia, with no experience in conservation, has been asked to do the conservation work at Red Fort. So this is a misunderstanding. Certain parts of the monument have been given for the services part of it. We can say that maybe the government should have done this on their own, but they say may be others can do it since that much technical skills of ASI are not required for these jobs.”
‘Parties to MoU can be dragged to court for violation of norms’
As for the criticism, he said, “it has been manufactured by saying that the monument has been handed over. Now the image that is being perceived is that it will be seen as Dalmia’s Red Fort with Dalmia written all over it. But that is not going to happen. I say this as a part of INTACH. We have gone to court when ASI has done bad work, we went to court to stop the Centre from demolishing the Hall of States at Pragati Maidan, why will we not go to court if Dalmia would do anything wrong.”
On the clause that the company would be left “harmless” in case there is any damage to the building, Menon said “it has been inserted because they fear that due to this kind of misapprehension, while they are doing maintenance work if something goes wrong with the building, the blame will come on the company. So they are saying we are not touching the building and we want to be left harmless for other people’s bad work.”
Advertising, ticket rate hike
On whether advertising by the company would spoil the aesthetics, Menon said: “We are worried about the advertising. It is still being worked out. They cannot go to town with the advertising. That has to be decided by the ASI and they have to follow the norms. If they will go overboard, we will object. We as citizens of India are as much owners of this monument as anyone else. If I as a conservationist will feel that Dalmia is doing something wrong, putting huge signage, etc., I will object.”
On the concerns raised by several political parties that ticket rates may be increased, Menon said, “This is a genuine worry.” For this he demanded that tickets for special facilities within the complex should be separate from general entry tickets, so that all citizens are able to visit the monument.
“Earlier when we were holding a dialogue with ASI on putting up an interpretation centre, which is quite an expensive thing and is provided in a lot of monuments so that people understand it, it was pointed out that while visitors are charged more because of this centre’s costs, the visitors should be allowed to buy ordinary tickets too which entitles them to see the monument without visiting the interpretation centre,” he added.
‘ASI can ensure there is no distortion of information in interpretation centre’
On the argument that the information provided in the interpretation centre may be manipulated to distort history, he said, “The narrative of interpretation will have to be approved by someone. The private player will not be left to do what they want. If the BJP controls ASI sure I can see something that I do not like, but then I have got every right to object and say that this is a wrong interpretation.’
“But ASI,” he said, “is the last arbiter on all this. They have to decide what has to be interpreted and how. We do know from universities and history departments that a lot of things do happen. So it is quite possible it might happen here also, I am not precluding that. But it does not mean that is the last word. We can always object to the fact that this interpretation is wrong just as I can object to the fact that a history book in Rajasthan is wrong.”
‘MoU is open and transparent’
Menon claimed that the charges notwithstanding, the MoU was “open and transparent” and there were no devil in the fine print. Stating that “ASI will have to decide on everything,” he said, “so we have to ensure that ASI plays its roles and does not go to sleep. And the civil society will have to keep its eye open. INTACH is a part of it and we will keep our eyes open too.”
A look at the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ project guidelines reveals that it “envisages providing world class tourist facilities at the various heritage sites/monuments or any other tourist sites across the country” and states that “ASI as on date protects 3,686 ancient monuments and archaeological sites including 36 world heritage sites.”
The guidelines further state that “to tap the true potential of these monuments, we need to provide basic and advanced amenities, illumination, night viewing facilities with safety and security to tourists, adaptive use of heritage site within permissible guidelines of ASI, and an overall enhanced tourist experience that will result in increase of domestic and foreign tourist footfall.”
Role of the ASI
The guidelines lay down that the ASI will have a major role in all decisions.
“ASI has statutory guidelines and heritage bye-laws for development within and around monument under the ‘Ancient Monument and Archeological Site and Remains Act, 2010’ and other Acts and Regulations. The proposed promotional material installation shall be strictly in adherence to these statutory guidelines. Visibility to the Monument Mitras would be within the framework of statutory guidelines. Further visibility would be given to the Monument Mitras in lieu of the advanced amenities provided. They would also be given extra provision to work on cross subsidization model to augment their financial resources.”
In accordance with these guidelines, the MoU signed between Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Survey of India and Dalmia Bharat Limited also notes that “various basic and advanced amenities” would be provided at the Red Fort “as decided by the ‘Oversight and Vision Committee’.”
It further states that these amenities would include “public conveniences, drinking water, cleanliness of the monument, accessibility for all, signage, Wi-Fi, cloakroom, illumination and night viewing, cafeteria, surveillance system, tourist facilitation cum interpretation centre, digital interactive kiosk and light and sound shows”.
The pact also lays down that “Monument Mitra through it corporate social responsibility intends to take up the Red Fort – Delhi monument/site under ‘Adopt a Heritage’ project.”
As for the role of ASI, the MoU states that “destinations proposed in this project are under supervision of nodal department Archaeological Survey of India”.
The MoU further stated that “the Oversight and Vision Committee has consented to the developmental activities proposed by the Monument Mitra at the monument and agrees to the same” as per the meeting held on March 20, 2018. The Oversight and Vision Committee would have secretary (tourism) and secretary (culture) as its chairperson and five other members.
Signages and promotion
It added that the committee “will acknowledge the contribution by the Monument Mitra towards developmental activities by way of signage/plaques etc at appropriate places.” However, the agreement lays down that “the placement, contents and size of the signage/plaques etc will be decided with mutual consent with the ‘Oversight and Vision Committee’ while ensuring that the same is in tune with the aesthetic value of the monuments and surroundings of the destination”.
The annexure III to the MoU discusses the “proposed visibility requirement for Red Fort”. It lays down: “Signage will be deployed at the monument indicating that the monument has been adopted by Dalmia Bharat Limited under Adopt a Heritage project, Government of India.”
This, however, the MoU states would be done “in a discreet manner and tastefully”. As for the sign and design of the standardised signage, it said, this “has to be approved by Archaeological Survey of India prior to the installation at site”.
The agreement also allows brand visibility on souvenirs, banners during cultural events and on signages. But these again would have to be approved by the ASI prior to the installation at the site.
No charging of collection fee, convenience fee
The MoU lays down that the Monument Mitra agrees that it would “finance the activities, operate and maintain the facilities on their own as approved by the committee”; it would ensure that “adequate funding is provided to improve and maintain the facilities for initial 5 years”; and that during period of adoption “no revenue shall be generated from the public as collection fee, convenience fee, etc. However, in case any fees are planned to be charged it will be subjected to specific clearance of the relevant government parties to the MoU.”
The agreement also provides that “any revenue generated through the proposed activities is required to be put back to sustain development, operations and maintenance activities at the adopted monument”.
Rates of “semi commercial activity” to be decided by panel headed by ASI
The MoU has also dealt in detail with the issue of “semi commercial activity” which has been defined as “any activity ancillary to operation of the site including sound and light show, souvenir shop, audio guides, cafeteria, cultural events etc necessary to sustain operations and maintenance (O&M) and developmental activities at the adopted site”.
It lays down that “the primary responsibility of ensuring compliance to the required standard of the services would be on Monument Mitra”.
Further, the MoU stated that “the reasonability of the rates charged for the provision of services, if any, would be decided by the joint committee headed by ASI and comprising representatives of Ministry of Culture and Monument Mitra. The Committee will also monitor the standard of services provided by Monument Mitra.”
Separate dedicated account for all project funds, quarterly audit mandatory
The agreement also lays down that “a separate dedicated account will be opened and operated by Monument Mitra for the project. Any revenue generated through the semi commercial activities and from any other associated activity pertaining to the project as approved by the Oversight and Vision Committee shall be deposited in this dedicated account”. It also says that these funds shall be deployed for sustaining operation and maintenance activities of the opted sites. This account would also be required to be audited quarterly by the Comptroller and Auditor General-empanelled chartered accountant.
The pact also states that “this MoU shall not in any way alter the legal status of the monument/developmental activities that vests and shall always remain vested with the Archaeological Survey of India”.
Indemnity clause raises concerns
Despite all these features of the MoU, a crucial aspect of the agreement, which has raised many eyebrows is the indemnity clause which notes that “Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Culture and Archaeological Survey of India will identify and hold harmless Monument Mitra against any loss, costs and expenses of any ASI claims which the latter may suffer as the result of any claims or proceedings brought against them for work performed in accordance with the scope of work and performance of this understanding”.
Though, as Menon said, this was necessitated to protect the company from issues not related to it, the political parties have questioned this aspect since the indemnity clause also gives creative freedom for transforming the Red Fort.
Soon after tourism minister K.J. Alphons awarded letters of intent to nine agencies for 22 monuments under Adopt a Heritage project on April 24, and declared that 31 prospective ‘Monument Mitras’ had been shortlisted by the Oversight and Vision Committee for developing tourist-friendly amenities at 95 monuments, the opposition had slammed the Modi government for “handing over” the Red Fort.
While Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala had quipped that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing to mortgage India’s symbol of independence, the Red Fort to corporates” and questioned, “Does Modiji or BJP even understand the importance of Lal Quila?”, the Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had tweeted: “Why can’t the Government even take care of our historic Lal Qila? Red Fort is a symbol of our nation. It is where India’s flag is hoisted on Independence Day. Why should it be leased out? Sad and dark day in our history.”
On the other hand, minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma defended the decision saying it was a great initiative and would help make heritage sites more attractive for tourists.
Examples of other countries
It was also pointed out by many in the tourism sector that several other countries had also roped in the private sector to maintain or renovate their heritage sites. In this regard, it was said that Italy has used sponsors to fund the restoration and maintenance of its archaeological sites and that the Colosseum went through a round of restoration upon being sponsored by a luxury hotel.
Likewise, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and Florence’s Uffizi gallery had all taken funds from business houses to undergo facelifts. Also, a Kuwaiti bank helped Cairo upgrade its heritage areas, and a German power-washing equipment company helped in cleaning of 100 monuments across the globe, including the Statue of Liberty.
National heritage was included in CSR rules during Manmohan era
As the Congress tried to make political capital out of the controversy, it was also pointed out that the CSR rules were finalised by its Rajasthan unit president, Sachin Pilot, when he was the minister of state for corporate affairs in the Manmohan Singh government in 2014.
According to the notifications issued to give effect to Section 135 and Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013, which relate to CSR, some new activities were also included. And one of the nine points pertained to “protection of national heritage, art and culture including restoration of buildings and sites of historical importance and works of art”.
House panel wanted prototype tested before actual adoption
However, Derek O Brien, chairman of the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, whose “recommendations” were invoked by Modi government ministers to defend the agreement on Red Fort with the Dalmia group, said the government showed undue haste in awarding the contract as it was still being discussed by the panel, which wanted a prototype to be tested first before allowing any adoption.
“The ministry presented the idea of Adopt a Heritage to the committee in February for adopting about a hundred monuments. We had serious reservations about the execution. Verbatim records of our meetings, which I can’t disclose because of parliamentary procedure, will confirm this. We made some concrete suggestions – the most important one was doing a prototype (pilot) on one of the monuments before proceeding at all with the idea,” O’Brien was quoted as saying.