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Heritage conservation in India is a noisy Babel, and history and its many
signposts are the worst victims
Is it the Big Conservation Fight in its uncut version? Or is it an elite
rendition of 'fish market' squabbles? The babel of voices emanating from the
various lobbies involved in protecting heritage monuments is getting louder
Ideology, personal agendas and acrimonious polemics on the basics of
conservation have made 'heritage' a contested term in
The War Of The Monuments
With the army deciding to move camp from Delhi's Red Fort after a century
and a half and pass the monument in its entirety to the Union culture
ministry, temperatures are likely to soar in an already raging conservation
debate. Focus has been squarely on this 350-year-old monument after a PIL
was filed by a group of experts in the Supreme Court against the ASI, which
is under the ministry.
The dispute has only gone on to show that in the absence of synchrony
between the ideology and practice of heritage conservation, everyone in the
war zone-conservation architects, NGOs, self-appointed guardians of
heritage, bureaucrats, ministers, and culture czars and czarinas-has his or
her two bits of wisdom to offer.
In the main there are at least five groups that project themselves as
custodians of heritage, each working at cross-purposes. They are: the ASI,
INTACH, independent architects and academics, and NGOs and sundry
'concerned' citizens' groups. Then, there's Jagmohan who often doesn't see
eye to eye with the ASI.
Madhu Bajpai, founder-member of the disbanded Conservation Society of Delhi
that was famous for its heritage walks, says: "Team spirit, trust and
understanding have to be built between various bodies to create precise
knowledge on how to carry out conservation activity." Her society broke up
over differences of opinion.
The Red Fort issue, which was meant to be a 'healthy' exchange of ideas, has
degenerated into an 'off-the-record' slanging match between the involved
parties. On the one side sits Jagmohan-superficially impassive but seething
inside. On the other, throwing stentorian invective at the government's
"reckless renovation work", is a group of 'public-spirited' citizens led by
self-styled design expert Rajeev Sethi who along with seven others filed the
PIL in October. The writ alleges the restoration work being undertaken at
the Red Fort by the ASI "violates international norms of conservation". The
grievance relates, inter alia, to the daubing of white cement over cracks in
marble and the use of "cheap stones" in inlay work.
Says architect A.G.K. Menon, director of Delhi's tvb School of Habitat
Studies and one of the litigants: "The ASI is making the Red Fort a complete
travesty of the authentic original." For others, not directly involved with
the PIL, the Red Fort affair offers a chance to seek a more participatory
process. "The government has to understand that heritage is a resource.
Conservation is not a one-department thing anymore," fumes Prof Nalini
Thakur of the School of Planning and Architecture.
The ministry has held its ground in its reply to the court. "You may be an
'expert', but how does that make you an expert on conservation?" is
Jagmohan's rhetorical question for Sethi. The latter alleges the minister's
reaction stems from the mistaken impression that he (Sethi) is "looking for
a job with the government".
Although the doyens of heritage conservation will all join forces to launch
periodic attacks on the government, they are hardly united. Personalised
wranglings over bureaucratic nitty-gritty, which are often bandied about as
informed polemics, characterise the field. For instance, how should India
define its heritage? Are international conventions such as the Vienna
Charter of 1964, to which India is a signatory, be followed blindly, or
should there be an Indian charter? How consultative should heritage
Not surprisingly, these debates have yielded few answers.Meanwhile,
squatters take shelter under historic canopies, builders raze unprotected
monuments and kingly courtyards become cricket pitches. Few of these
polemics have seriously addressed issues of population and life patterns
vis-a-vis heritage conservation. For, monuments, as many scholars have
convincingly argued, are not mere stones and mortar, but part of a history
that is constantly on the make and is a living reality.
For the Indian conservation community at large, the red rag-in-chief is the
ASI-the one body invested with an 'unjustifiable' degree of power to make
and execute decisions. Governed by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological
Sites and Remains Act, 1958, which many refer to as an outdated piece of
legislation, the ASI is currently overlord of 3,620-odd protected monuments.
In addition, each state has its own archaeological department and some 9,000
monuments are protected under state legislation. "The ASI still operates on
principles borrowed from the Raj. Only 'dead' monuments are considered
worthy of conservation," Menon accurately observes.
His own approach emphasises the need for an Indian charter that accounts for
both dead monuments and living cultural traditions. Similarly, Thakur
teaches an "alternative paradigm" to architecture students, where heritage
is understood to be the sum of any site's anthropological context and the
policies that impact upon it, and specific action flows from this.
The INTACH is a category unto itself, as the country's largest NGO providing
advocacy and technical expertise on heritage conservation. Guided by a
conservation manual written by a Briton, INTACH's approach stems from a
presumably 'western' approach that reduces conservation to a positivist
discipline. In other words, a sort of leaner, updated and corporatised
version of that grand old edifice, the ASI.
Not least is Jagmohan's four-fold approach. With a formidable reputation as
a man of action, he's all for immediate results. "Tourism, preservation of
culture, clean civic life and environmental upgradation all go hand in
hand," he explains. His 'safai karao' (clean it up) approach carries clear
traces of his instincts as a demolition man during the Emergency.
Another key player is the local NGO, which creates heritage awareness and
acts as a pressure group. For instance, the efforts of Baroda's Heritage
Trust in documenting the Champaner Fort have finally paid off, claims its
president Karan Grover, since the site is now on India's nomination list for
world heritage status.
It's hardly surprising, given these different groups, that any action by one
of them elicits sharp reactions from others. In 1999-2000, INTACH was
embroiled in a public spat with photographer Benoy Behl who had
independently begun restoration work on 11th century cave paintings in
Ladakh. "It was a case of misplaced passion. Such efforts cause more harm
than anything else," says INTACH's Divya Gupta. Given that these caves are
not protected under the 1958 Act, anyone with a conscience-with or without
the know-how-can begin restoration work.
More recently, Hyderabad's bid for a nomination to world heritage city
status fell flat because of the twin deficiencies of interest and timely
action on part of the state and central governments. Vasanta Sobha Turaga, a
Hyderabad-based conservation architect who had prepared and sent a 450-page
proposal to the ministry in 2000, claims she has not received a formal
response so far. (Jagmohan, though, did write a reply to a question on the
issue in Parliament, stating "none of the clusters fall within the norms set
by the World Heritage Convention...due to the effect of urbanisation and
resultant interventions.") Says an exhausted Turaga: "The letter did not
refer to any study conducted specifically to determine whether or not
Hyderabad has the potential."
Where, then, does one go from here? Gupta feels working towards an inclusive
definition of heritage may be a crucial starting point. "Let's see some
constructive suggestions instead of this constant bickering which only
causes confusion," says Jagmohan. Unfortunately, with everyone out to
disagree, architectural heritage may be the biggest casualty.