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

Two of the world’s most iconic monuments — the Hagia Sophia with its giant buttresses and soaring minarets located in the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul, and the Alhambra fortress complex located in Granada, Spain — are living examples of the syncretic nature of monuments around the world.

The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in 537 AD and had an unmatched collection of sacred Christian relics — only to become a mosque in the 15th century when Sultan Mehmed II defeated the Christian monarch. The Alhambra fortress was built in the 13th century on the remains on a Roman fort.

The Turkish government launched a major drive under which the Hagia Sophia's sixth-century mosaic work depicting the Virgin Mary and other Christian saints is being restored, and the mosque has been reopened as a museum. Restoration work on the Alhambra complex began in the mid-30s of the last century and continues to this day — with the help of experts from across the globe who do not wear their Christian beliefs on their sleeves. Rather, the Spanish government has taken the lead in projecting the Alhambra fortress as one of the best examples of the magnificence of Moorish architecture.

Since neither the Spanish nor the Turkish governments had sufficient funds to invest in these restoration drives, money was raised from across the globe with the World Monuments Fund also arranging financial aid.

But in both these efforts, the governments made sure that the bodies supervising these restorations were peopled with history, archaeology and art experts.

The Red Fort's adoption by the Dalmia Group has triggered a debate on corporate intervention in the restoration of heritage monuments. Reuters/File Photo

The Red Fort's adoption by the Dalmia Group has triggered a debate on corporate intervention in the restoration of heritage monuments. Reuters/File Photo

India's monuments have a similar syncretic history. The beleaguered Archaeological Survey of India has been entrusted with the task of looking after almost 4,000 of them — on a measly budget of a little over Rs 120 crore, routed through the Ministry of Culture.

Short of manpower, this cash-strapped organisation is doing its best to protect the monuments under its fold. But no one can question their expertise in restoration, which is recognised across Asia. The governments of Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka have chosen ASI archaeologists to step in and oversee major restoration projects in their respective countries despite very lucrative offers from the Chinese government. The restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia has been one of ASI’s most outstanding achievements.

Dr Gautam Sengupta, a leading archaeologist- historian and former director general of ASI, regrets its shoddy treatment. "India has some of the greatest monuments in the world and despite the expertise available within the organisation, the government refuses to fill key posts or to increase funding. Nothing has been done to strengthen the organisation, which is very short of manpower. The result is that this organisation has suffered and its image has been dented in the eyes of the general public," he says.

The Red Fort, which is being handed over to the Dalmia Bharat group, is presently generating Rs 6 crore per year from ticket sales; the ASI allocation for maintenance costs of this monument is around Rs 50 lakh per annum. The money earned goes directly into the coffers of the Ministry of Culture. There is no clarification in this new agreement as to who will collect the money from the ticket sales, but if it goes to the Dalmia  group, then they will have an assured income of Rs 30 crore on an investment of Rs 25 crore, for over five years.

The government is determined to push through this scheme, which it believes will make these monuments more tourist-friendly and thereby enhance their cultural importance. In this, our cultural czars have shown  a complete lack of sensitivity. Many of our crown jewels could do with lower footfalls — as is the case with the Taj Mahal, where the ASI has repeatedly  pleaded that the numbers of tourists visiting this monument be spaced out to minimise the damage to the marble.

While Dr Sengupta does not object to investment from corporate houses in upgrading facilities etc at monuments, he believes such an intervention must be a multi-layered initiative, keeping in mind the unique characteristic of each monument. "These are the nation’s crown jewels," he points out.

A similar thought is echoed by one of India’s foremost archaeologists — Dr Shireen Ratnagar, a former professor of archaeology in JNU and an authority on the Harappan civilisation.

"This trend of investment by corporate houses is happening across the western world but their restoration efforts are strictly supervised. There is no clarity about how the Ministry of Culture plans to proceed with this initiative," Dr Ratnagar says.

Scholars disagree on other aspects of this scheme: Dr Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, archaeologist and historian at the Aligarh Muslim University, who specialises in medieval Indian history and has written a book on Fathepur Sikri, believes there is a sinister plan behind such a move.

"Looking after our prized monuments is the task of the government, not of a corporate house. What is the meaning of the interpretation centres that will be set up in these monuments? I apprehend this is a first step to reinterpret our history. The government is already rewriting our textbooks — they are going to do the same with our architecture. History is moving towards myth creation where those who have been defeated are being presented as victors. In mythology, you can say anything," Dr Rezavi cautioned.

"You have to understand the monument, you have to understand its history and culture before an intervention can be made," he added.

Dr Rezavi  is a strong critic of the Humayun’s Tomb restoration, undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

He points out that the main architect for the project (Ratish Nanda) has claimed the team was closely following the original techniques of construction, including getting 'craftsmen from Central Asia' to assist in the work.

Dr Rezavi says, "Our monuments were never built by craftsmen from Central Asia. They were built by Indian craftsmen and masons; it was only the architects who came from outside. The Akbarnama does provide some generalised details about the materials used but we do not know the constituencies of plaster or other details... The ASI is the most efficient body to look after these monuments and their hand should be strengthened."

Of course, experts point out that idea of 'restoring' a monument itself is a myth — it cannot be rebuilt, only maintained, as Dr Najab Haider, professor of Medieval History at JNU, highlights. "A monument can (only) be kept at the level at which it was found. Conservation does not mean a monument can be renewed or rebuilt. We cannot tamper with its physical structure in the name of restoration. We conserve monuments to ensure no further decay takes place," Dr Haider says.

Haider does not object to corporate intervention, but says it must be thoroughly scrutinised before any green signals are given. He also cites how the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has been working with colonial monuments successfully in Mumbai, along with teams of experts.

In the case of the Red Fort, nothing has been spelled out except that Bharat Dalmia group has been given Red Fort for a paltry Rs 25 crore for five years — roughly the cost of a swish apartment in Delhi, and certainly not enough for the Qila Mubarak, where the Prime Minister unfurls the flag on Independence Day ever year. The idea of outsourcing the maintenance of heritage structures to private companies is not new, but it has to be executed with greater sophistication.


Updated Date: May 14, 2018 18:06 PM

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