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Monumental neglect: In dire need of reinvigoration, Red Fort's 'superficial' conservation lacks the right approach

When news emerged in April that Delhi’s Red Fort, the iconic vermilion sandstone structure from where the Prime Minister addresses the nation on Independence Day, was being “adopted” by a cement conglomerate, many were left aghast. Historians and conservation experts were divided over the merits of the government’s Adopt a Heritage initiative. But they were in agreement on one thing: India’s celebrated monuments, including the Red Fort, are in dire need of reinvigoration.

Of the almost 2.5 million tourists who visit the fort every year, most prefer to walk straight through the Chatta Bazaar to the Naubat Khana. The inner sanctum is dotted with Mughal structures, interestingly most of them in marble and not red sandstone, from the beautiful Diwan-i-Khas to the famed Moti Masjid. But more than the beauty, it is the dilapidated nature of the structures that makes an impression. The marble of nearly all the buildings is bleached and most of these are out of bounds for visitors. In some places, the delicate inlay work on the ceiling is visible while in others crude wooden paneling, clearly rotting, block your view. Every structure hints at past grandeur and, indeed, what could be made possible again, if conservation became a priority.

 Monumental neglect: In dire need of reinvigoration, Red Forts superficial conservation lacks the right approach

File image of Red Fort, Delhi. Reuters/Saumya Khandelwal

It’s not a lost cause everywhere though. The compound also harbours recently restored colonial barracks where museums honouring freedom fighters and even the Indian National Army will be housed. Surrounded by imposing trees and vast swathes of lush lawns, the barracks would transport you to a university town except for the niggling fact at the back of one’s mind that they were built by the British after their “takeover” of the fort following the war of 1857. The restoration work is the result of an ambitious conservation drive of the World Heritage Site undertaken since the start of 2018 by the Archeological Survey of India.

“The idea, when one talks about conservation of a monument like the Red Fort, should be the resurrection of its glory,” says Dr RC Agrawal, former joint director, ASI. In 2009, the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan for the fort was announced, conceptualised by conservation architect Gurmeet Rai and to be implemented by the ASI. With a 10-year timeline, the CCMP laid out what was needed to be done in the complex, including demolishing and retaining of colonial structures. “For several years, work at the Red Fort was done in the spirit of the CCMP with work taking place along the central axis. However, a lot of things recommended, like a dedicated on-site project manager, a committee to advise on the narrative that the fort will have, etc, were not in place,” says Rai, adding that she and her team have sought an appointment with the DG, ASI as well as a joint site visit.

But what is happening right now in the fort is anybody’s guess. There are signs of work around, even if that means walking on dug-up earth through the bazaar, and the ASI has stated in news reports that by the end of this year it would have completed the current restoration and conservation work. These announcements came particularly thick and fast following the announcement of the “adoption” of the fort by the Dalmia Bharat Group in a contract worth Rs 25 crore over five years. The company will have to provide functioning toilets, new lighting systems, toilet facilities, water kiosks, etc, in exchange for the right to feature its brand name on souvenirs and signs.

Also read: Red Fort 'adopted' by Dalmia group: Corporate role in restoring heritage monuments needs greater scrutiny

“What is happening right now is at best superficial work. Conservation requires years of planning as well as a multi-disciplinary approach. The ASI is an organisation composed of archaeologists. Conservation requires botanists, conservation architects, landscape architects,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India.

Conservation is a multi-layered task that begins with understanding the history of the building and what the objective is, feels Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, author, The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad. To this end, sustained academic studies of the structure need to be undertaken among other measures. Mukherji, who is a trained conservation architect herself, feels that in the case of the Red Fort there is no continuity in terms of the conservation approach.

The ASI’s organisation structure is divided into a total of 29 circles (a circle is a city/town) each headed by a superintending archaeologist. The director general of the organisation is almost always a non-technical person who is entrusted with crucial decisions about conservation and history. The current DG, for instance, was an additional secretary in the department of administrative reforms and public grievances. A common grouse is that when the DG changes – it is a bureaucratic posting after all – so does the direction of the ASI and the projects it has undertaken. “No one really is at a liberty to take a decision. They are controlled by Shastri Bhavan (where the ministry of culture is housed),” says Agrawal. “The DG is subservient to the administration. Work happens on an ad-hoc basis.”

Sometimes the decisions can come tinged with political views also. The barracks have been worked upon extensively as they will house museums, one of which has been inaugurated by the Prime Minister. “Conservation is a continuous process. The fort has so many structures. Each had to be studied individually, plans made for minor and major conservation work, structural cleaning, maintenance incorporated, etc. The Red Fort needs this kind of an approach, structure ki haalat kharaab hai (the structure is in a bad shape),” says Agrawal.

But the Red Fort is not an isolated case. This is the approach to heritage and monument management in India and, perhaps the reason why, culture minister Mahesh Sharma, in 2017, admitted that 24 monuments in the country had “ceased to exit” because of encroachments. Cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible, if harnessed correctly, can transform not just the economy of the country, through tourism, but also, if done properly with community involvement, lead to ownership among locals and employment generation. “Conservation is to be from the point of view of the original character of the building and not just with tourism in mind,” says Mukherji. It’s a memo that clearly hasn’t reached the ASI.

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Updated Date: Dec 05, 2018 18:42:03 IST