India has one of the largest volumes of and diversity in heritage in the world. India has 38 heritage and cultural sites declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. We have 3,691 monuments in the custody of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) declared as monuments of national importance. Besides this, around 5000 plus monuments are protected under the Archaeology Departments of various State Governments and a significant number of temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches (around 4,50,000 plus) under the custody of religious endowments and trust. In addition to this, there are large reserve of urban heritage in its living historic cities, two of which (Ahmedabad and Jaipur) are already recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. If one considers the historic structures in such historic cities which are not less than 60 in India, the number of heritage sites in our country may be more than few lakhs.
Now the biggest question (or doubt) that may arise in anybody’s mind is – are we equipped enough to protect these sites? Do Archaeological Survey of India and its counterparts in the states have enough resources to conserve these sites? Do we have proper policies to protect these sites? Answer to all these questions will definitely be in the negative.
CAG on ASI
For example, CAG of India in one of its reports has observed “The ASI did not have an updated and approved Conservation Policy to address the conservation and preservation requirements. We noted the absence of any prescribed criteria for prioritisation of monuments which required conservation works. As a result, monuments were selected arbitrarily for carrying out conservation works. Further, many monuments were never considered for any kind of structural conservation despite need for the same.”
Heritage in danger
So, it is true that heritage of India is facing serious conservation, preservation, maintenance and management challenges. Further, there is also need for the so called custodians of heritage sites to come out of their self-assigned role of administration, identification of monuments and sites and notification with conservation and own up the true responsibility and look beyond their colonial mandates in order to collaborate with other government and non-government organisations to sustain the integrity, authenticity and cultural value of our tangible heritage for future generations and also protect, conserve, research and showcase our unique and vast heritage with best of heritage management practices.
Interestingly, ASI follows the Conservation Manual of Sir John Marshall which was published in 1923. Apart from that ASI has a history of more than 150 years and experience derived over the years which is enough for the organisation to cope with the challenges on the ground. However, the greatest challenge ASI presently facing is that of resources. For example, though ASI received a 20% higher allocation at Budget Estimate (BE) 2020-21 stage compared to the Rs. 1036.41 crore allocation made at BE 2019-20, its too meagre a sum considering the fact that 3691 monuments come under the protection of ASI. “..even the increased allocation for protection and conservation appears very meagre,” Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Culture has observed in its recent report. Natural casualty of insufficient/limited resources with ASI is the quality of work and the delayed execution of the projects. No wonder then ASI could provide boundary walls (to prevent encroachment) only at 280 sites so far!
Own earnings go to Consolidated Fund
Though the ASI generates the revenue collected through sale of entry fee at ticketed monuments/museums and other sources like filming permission, allotting space for cultural events etc., the same is deposited to the Consolidated Fund of India and as such there is no provision to retain earned revenue by ASI for any purposes. In addition, funding is provided by PSU/private organizations for project centric requirements through the National Culture Fund. ASI is also getting funds through work for conservation/ preservation and development of amenities at the monument through State Governments/ PSUs/organizations.
National Conservation Policy not implemented
Though the National Conservation Policy was adopted in 2014, it has not yet been put into practice by ASI itself leave alone state archaeological departments. Most of the people at the state level are not even aware of the provisions under the policy. The only exception is the State Archaeology of Rajasthan where it has been put to use for the world heritage sites in the state. Time has come for ASI and other states to follow this practice.
Adhocism is the greatest threat for making the organisation system and process oriented and the same applies to ASI too where most of the works are carried out on adhoc basis and a holistic conservation plan through a multidisciplinary team following a value based and scientific approach is seldom prepared. Though the policy states that a Conservation Plan has to be prepared in advance of any conservation effort in reality it has never been followed. As a result, quality of conservation work is impacted and often affects project schedule. Further, quality of works could be improved substantially if ASI follows the practice of taking the advice of the experts in the field. Such expertise could include archaeology, engineering, hydrology, conservation architects, art/ urban history, landscape architecture, geology, botany, environmental sciences, hotel/ visitor management, horticulture, finance, lighting design, new media design, fund-raising, administration, archival research, exhibition design amongst several others. Quality of work is also compromised as ASI doesn’t have a skilled resource pool of specialized masons, artisans, Sthapatis, Sompuras etc.
Enhance interaction with state departments
Though almost every state in India, has its own ‘Department of Heritage/Archaeology’ – responsible for monuments considered to be of local importance, there is no dialogue or interaction between the ASI circles and the Archaeology departments in the States on a regular basis. Greater interaction, sharing of learning, joint training programmes, possibly sharing responsibilities between the Circle and State Archaeology would have helped to improve efficiency on both the sides.
Even more worrisome is the fact that though Temple Trusts and Religious Institutions own large number of heritage structures in the country, most of them don’t have the knowledge and technical capabilities to carry out conservation works. Sometimes Conservation Works undertaken by these organizations can damage the structures substantially. Indeed, there are exceptions too. For example, heritage of Golden Temple in Amritsar is looked after by SGPC and quite efficiently too.
In short, just rebranding of ASI may not solve the greater objective of efficient conservation of our heritage properties. There need to be a proper and effective implementation of our conservation policy. Above all our people need to be made aware of the importance of our culture and heritage.