Our built heritage can be leveraged for economic gain through tourism dollars as well as opportunities for craftsmen and local communities
Only a limited number of heritage buildings are tourist attractions; for the rest, new functions need to be incentivised and planned. Most of the 600,000 protected heritage structures in the UK are in private ownership—and as historic buildings are considered better built, they command high premiums. Just as the Indian government’s ministry of tourism funds the tourism corporations of all states, Central government grants could be made available to fund conservation efforts by the states and private owners. Property tax waivers, permission for change of land use and transferable development rights are amongst other incentives owners of heritage buildings or those residing within the 100m “prohibited zones” of nationally protected monuments could receive. Besides being used as hotels or museums or libraries, heritage buildings could also easily be adapted to serve as schools or clinics—lending economic value to local communities. While representing a higher aesthetic and building quality, it is always more economical to convert a building than to build afresh.
To be meaningful, conservation works need to be coupled with urban improvements, improved transport infrastructure, providing economic opportunities, and improving health, education and sanitation infrastructure. Only then will heritage assets be valued by those living around them. Conservationists have often expected local communities to contribute towards the conservation effort while not offering any incentives and imposing heavy restrictions. Such an approach is never likely to succeed.
One of the world’s most frequently cited conservation success stories has resulted from the non-profit partnership established by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Central Public Works Department and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation in the Capital’s Humayun’s Tomb-Nizamuddin area. Here, over a 10-year period, conservation works have been undertaken on over 40 structures, leading to a tenfold increase in visitor numbers and the doubling of the number of World Heritage Sites; they now number 11, in addition to Humayun’s Tomb. The Aga Khan Trust has assisted the ASI in taking ownership of an additional 35 acres of land, freeing it from encroachment and implementing landscape restoration at the monuments. Over 10,000 trees have been planted in the process. With conservation work requiring 500,000 days of work for craftsmen, there is a strong case for making conservation works eligible for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act funds.
As a result of this partnership project, over 20,000 people inhabiting the adjoining Nizamuddin Basti today have an improved quality of life resulting from simultaneous efforts in street improvement, landscaping of neighbourhood parks, building of community toilet complexes, improved primary education and the provision of widely-used health facilities. The emphasis of the Sufi cultural legacy through cultural performances and exhibitions has also instilled a sense of pride in the local community. Providing appropriate vocational training has meant thousands of jobs and economic opportunities in selling souvenirs crafted by the women in Nizamuddin.