Interview: Ratish Nanda, CEO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC)

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a large group of institutions that was set up in the 1980s and is currently working in 30 countries. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture looks at culture to leverage socio-economic gain. In conversation with Sudeshna BanerjeeRatish Nanda, chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), describes how conservation can generate employment in India.

Ratish Nanda
Ratish Nanda © Financial Chronicle


Often you have to relocate people to clear encroachments before conservation work begins. How do you manage?

We have a very simple objective. We are here to improve people’s lives and we would not like to get into any situation where we would have to negatively affect their lives. There are times when you have to take an initiative to understand what is the value. For us, relocation of people has really been the last resort. For example, we were able to successfully relocate about 20 families from the Baoli. We had built alternate accommodations. We had provided aid to the families in terms of travel grants, health insurance, putting the children to school, giving vocational training to women and youth for livelihood and we have done as much as we could to minimise the hardship of moving.

We have done it with the belief that moving would be good for those families. For example, at the Baoli, 80 people were living in complete unsanitary conditions with 8-9 people living in a 6/6 ft room — almost on top of one another. So relocation was done in a very humane manner to ensure a better livelihood. This can be done only by non-government organisations. The government helped us by allotting space for relocation. It takes a long time to overcome mistrust but then that’s what we are here to do. Although we haven’t been always successful, we try our best.

Any new projects or sub projects that you are working on?

We do not talk about projects till we finish our job because we cannot afford to fail. But yes, there are many projects within these projects, which are being taken up. For us, the whole project is larger than the sum total of individual projects.

For us, in Delhi it is necessary to fix the monuments but also restore the gardens. It’s necessary to plant 20,000 trees but also build toilets. It was important for us to ensure that the women residing in Nizamuddin have access to economic opportunities. It was also important for us to fix the sewer lines, water supply and do housing improvements while fixing monuments. All of that is happening.


As far as maintenance is concerned in a typical public private partnership like yours, how is it managed after your work gets over?

We work at the pleasure of the ASI or any other government body who is a partner. We are here as long as we are needed and as long as we are asked to stay. In an ideal world, what we have got here is that since it’s a heritage project, material is very critical. If the material stays for the first two-three years then it’s fine. In Humayun’s tomb, for example, there’s been so much seepage that we had to redo portions again and again and for that we may have to continue with the process for the next several years. But the monuments as such do not require attention for another 100-200 years, provided simple things like keeping the rain water gutter clean, ensuring no water collects or vandalism happens. In the case of Humayun’s tomb museum and Sunder Nursery, we have committed to managing the sites for a 10-year-period post completion. So during that period we intend to make these areas financially sustainable.

What is your plan on the financial sustainability of these restored monuments?

Conservation, thanks to our efforts, has now been perceived as an area where a lot of CSR funds can be utilised. Philanthropy plays a big part in conservation, although knowing that no end sight is possible. The idea is not to really recover funds we have used but to make sure there is a huge visitor number. The garden restoration has led to a 1,000 per cent increase in visitors at Humayun’s Tomb. Hence, conservation well done will definitely attract a large number of visitors but in rural areas such expectation is not possible. Over there conservation means sites can be used for local human resources and become infrastructure assets that the local community can use. Can schools not run in historic buildings? You have to adapt to community needs.

The second part is how to attract tourism? That cannot happen only through conservation. Tourism needs facilities. This is what the Humayun’s tomb museum is all about — creating a new 21st century attraction.

Sunder Nursery is about giving green space. At this juncture, we are getting two million visitors. We expect it to double in the next five years.

Critically what is absolutely important is that we need to perceive conservation of historic buildings as an economic asset. We pride ourselves for being an ancient civilisation but there’s very little that remains. I think what we are trying to demonstrate here is that these are financial assets that can help India achieve objectives in a very innovative manner and at the same time instil a sense of pride and achieve communal harmony.

It has direct and indirect benefits through tourism, job creation and restoring the environment. For every rupee sensibly invested in conservation, the returns are manifold. For our efforts in Delhi, 12 more monuments have been designated as world heritage sites. We hope the Qutb Shahi tombs will also be designated as a world heritage site. This is also about national pride.