The news that a hundred major monuments and historical sites are up for 'adoption' by private corporations, public sector undertakings and individuals under the government's 'Adopt A Heritage' (sic) plan came to public notice when the news broke that the Lal Qila had been given over to the care of the Dalmia Bharat Group for the next five years. A newspaper report quoted the company's CEO as saying "[we] have to start work within 30 days and have to own it for five years initially. Then the contract can be extended on mutually agreeable terms. It will help us integrate the Dalmia brand with India."
It can be said without controversy that integrating the Dalmia brand with India isn't a pressing priority for anyone except the company. On the other hand, the Red Fort is every Indian's business. Over the past century and a half, it has come to stand for India. From the revolt of 1857 to the INA trials of the 1940s, the fort became a sign for an insurgently nationalist India. When Subhas Bose said 'Dilli Chalo', Delhi was represented by the Lal Qila. When L.K. Advani campaigned on his rath in the mid-1990s, his pink, motorized chariot had Netaji painted on one side with the Red Fort in the background. This was meant to invoke the INA's intended assault on Delhi as a precedent for Advani's own. India's prime ministers have addressed the nation on every Independence Day from the ramparts of this iconic building.
So the Red Fort matters as do the Taj Mahal, the Sun Temple in Konark, Fatehpur Sikri, the Residency in Lucknow, Sarnath, the Sunderbans, Pangong Lake and India Gate, which are just some of the famous sites up for corporate 'friending' on the Adopt A Heritage website. These places are India; when a company's CEO says that its MoU with the government allows it to "own it for five years", it's reasonable for you and I as citizens to want to read the fine print of the MoU to understand the rights these companies will be given in these national heritage sites in return for their money and their managerial expertise. But more largely, the prospect of Dalmia Bharat managing the Red Fort and, possibly, the Sun Temple in Konark or GMR Sports being given some form of branding rights over the Taj Mahal, should prompt a national conversation on the relationship being proposed between private capital and national heritage.
It's worth saying here that non-governmental funds and expertise are not just welcome, they are essential for the preservation of India's heritage, whether these come from international bodies like Unesco, non-profit organizations like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture or private corporations. The idea that the Archaeological Survey of India along with the ministry of culture should have a monopoly over the care of India's built heritage has been comprehensively discredited by the track record of these organizations. Even the most famous Indian heritage sites are often uncomfortable, inaccessible, poorly maintained and badly conserved places that neither welcome nor inform their visitors.
The renovation and conservation of Humayun's Tomb and the monuments of Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin are outstanding examples of the benefits that accrue from an understanding among the ASI, the government's public works department and a private trust like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The scrupulous restoration of the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan led by the conservation architect, Ratish Nanda, of the Aga Khan Trust and supported by IndiGo airlines and the ASI is another public-private success story. If the Adopt A Heritage programme was using these as benchmarks for its MoUs, we could all rest assured. Alas, it isn't.
Since the memorandum of understanding between Dalmia Bharat and its government partners — the ministries of tourism and culture and the Archaeological Survey of India — isn't publicly available, the scope of this 'understanding' has to be gleaned from newspaper reports. It isn't clear from initial reports whether Dalmia Bharat's connection with the Red Fort is like the Aga Khan Trust's relationship with Humayun's Tomb (the responsibility for rigorously researched restoration and discreet credit for a job well done) or whether it's like Emirates Airways's relationship with Arsenal's football stadium (a quid pro quo that makes the site a billboard for the company's brand in return for funds and services rendered) or something in between.
There is a problem with the second sort of relationship when the places in question are heritage sites. What works with a sports stadium isn't a good model for sites that are seen in our collective imagination as 'national' or as sacred or definitive of some part of our country.