Heritage on auction

Print edition : June 08, 2018

The Red Fort. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The Red Fort in Delhi recently became the site of a different battle when it was “adopted” as part of a government scheme to privatise the maintenance of historical monuments in the country.

INDIA'S cultural heritage is up for “adoption”. In September 2017, President Ram Nath Kovind launched the “Adopt a Heritage: Apni Dharohar, Apni Pehchaan” scheme on World Tourism Day. State-owned cultural assets, including the iconic Taj Mahal, were poised to be commercially exploited. Jointly promoted by the Ministries of Tourism and Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the “Adopt a Heritage” scheme invited bids from corporates, public sector units and individuals for the upkeep of India’s historical sites. It was being perceived as a back-door entry for private players into the rich and precious state-owned real estate of the country in an abrasive and systematic manner.

This scheme recently came into the public spotlight when IndiGo Airlines, the GMR Group and the Dalmia Bharat Group participated in an auction to “adopt” the Red Fort. The Red Fort, a seat of Mughal power and a landmark of the First War of Independence in 1857, thus became the site of a different kind of battle. The diversified Dalmia Group, with interests in cement, sugar and power, among others, won the bid at Rs.25 crore for five years. The Dalmia Group also bagged the bid to “adopt” the Gandikota Fort in Andhra Pradesh.

In 2013-14, the Red Fort generated a revenue of over Rs.6 crore, according to data from the Ministry of Culture. Even without accounting for inflation, if the Red Fort had continued to earn the same amount every year, in five years its income would amount to Rs.30 crore. At Rs.25 crore, the government had in fact undersold the 255-acre expanse (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of this steady revenue-spinner.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Dalmia Group, the ASI and the government allows the private company to display its brand signage prominently in and around the heritage structure. It seemed like an unequal deal where the corporate would benefit immensely in terms of brand visibility and recall value at a throwaway price. As per the agreement, the private company can also undertake revenue-generating semi-commercial activities after clearances from the Ministry. It is as yet unclear as to whose kitty the revenue generated from such activities would go into.

The MoU mentions the opening of a separate account by the Monument Mitra (“friend of monument”, in this case the Dalmia Group) for the project, where all the revenue generated will be deposited. The funds will be used for operational and maintenance activities, but surplus funds can be deployed for future development of tourism amenities after prior approval. The nature and scope of these amenities, however, were not specified.

Under the MoU, the Monument Mitra will be allowed to outsource its work to another party. Considering that the ASI has itself outsourced its work to the Dalmia Group in the first place, observers wonder why so many layers of outsourcing are required to maintain a public asset. The duration of the MoU is extendable by another five years on the basis of the recommendation of the Oversight and Vision committee. Moreover, the MoU repeatedly mentions “initial” five years, implying a continuity of the project with the same parties thereafter.

Indemnity clause

The inclusion of an indemnity clause is cause enough for concern. The clause states that the Ministries of Tourism and Culture and the ASI will “hold harmless Monument Mitra (company/Trust and its officers and employees), against any loss, costs and expenses of any ASI claims which the latter may suffer as the result of any claims or proceedings brought against them arising from work performed in accordance with the scope of work and performance of this understanding”. Does that mean that in case the Dalmia Group damages the historical structure, accidentally or otherwise, it will not be held liable? While there seems to be no justification for providing a private company such a leeway, it also reveals the government’s concern for a private company more than the country’s heritage.

Upset by the blatant exchange of heritage for profit motive, citizens marched from Rajghat to the Red Fort on May 10 to register their disapproval. The padayatra was organised by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Students’ Federation of India, the All India Students’ Association, Anhad, the Centre for Dalit Literature and Art, the Progressive Writers’ Association, the Democratic Teachers’ Front, the Dalit Lekhak Sangh, the Jan Sanskriti Manch and Aman Biradari. The protesters deemed the MoU a sale of an important icon of India’s freedom struggle.

They compared the current regime of Narendra Modi to that of the British “Company Raj.” Protesting against the move, the Congress posted a poll on Twitter asking: “After handing over the Red Fort to the Dalmia Group, which is the next distinguished location that the BJP government will lease out to a private entity?” Twitterati wondered whether Parliament House would be auctioned off next. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned the scheme in strong terms. It reminded the Bharatiya Janata Party government that the Parliamentary Committee that examined the issue of handing over heritage sites to private corporates had decided against this unanimously, and urged the BJP government to rescind its decision. The writer and historian William Dalrymple said: “There must be better ways of maintaining a nation’s greatest monuments than by auctioning them off to a corporate house. There’s a huge difference between the Dalmia Group adopting, say, a haveli in Old Dilli and adopting the Red Fort itself. Tier 1 monuments are a nation’s crown jewels. They should not be played around with. It is even more worrying that corporates cannot be held responsible for any damage.” Senior advocate in the Supreme Court Sanjay Hegde pointed out the political connection between the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Dalmia Group. Vishnu Hari Dalmia of the Dalmia Group is a former president of the VHP and a key member of the Sangh Parivar who played a prominent role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and was among those accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “Why can’t the government even take care of our historic Lal Qila? Red Fort is a symbol of our nation. It is where India’s flag is hoisted on Independence Day. Why should it be leased out? Sad and dark day in our history.”

Meanwhile, the “Adopt a Heritage” project has at stake almost every heritage structure of the country: 3,686 archaeological sites, 36 World Heritage sites and 116 ASI-ticketed monuments. ITC Limited and GMR Sports have already expressed interest in the Taj Mahal, while heritage sites from the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh to the Sunderbans in West Bengal are all there for the taking.

So far, 31 agencies referred to as Monument Mitras have been approved to adopt 95 monuments or tourist sites across India. MoUs have been signed to hand over Mt Stok Kangri in Ladakh and the trail to Gaumukh in Uttarakhand to the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India. The Inter-Ministerial Oversight and Vision Committee gave letters of intent to seven shortlisted companies for 14 monuments: the SBI Foundation was shortlisted for the adoption of Jantar Mantar, Delhi; TK International Limited for the adoption of the Sun temple, Konark, the Raja Rani temple, Bhubaneswar, and the Ratnagiri monuments, Jajpur, Odisha; Yatra Online Private Limited for Hampi, Karnataka, Leh Palace, Jammu and Kashmir, Qutub Minar, Delhi, and Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra; Travel Corporation of India Limited for Mattancherry Palace Museum, Kochi, and Safdarjung Tomb, Delhi; the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India for the Gangotri Temple Area; Special Holidays Travel Private Limited along with the Rotary Club of Delhi for Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi; NBCC for Purana Qila, Delhi; Orange County Resorts & Hotels for Lotus Mahal and Elephant Stables, Hampi; Heritage Resorts Hampi for ancient pathway revival from the Virupaksha temple to the Vitthala temple, Hampi, and the Krishna temple (behind Baravalinga), Hampi; and the Kakatiya Heritage Trust for the Ramappa temple, Palampet, Telangana.

Some States have protested against the move to include their heritage structures under the scheme. Assam opposed the inclusion of the following sites: Kaziranga, the largest habitat of the endangered one-horned rhino and a World Heritage site; Rang Ghar, an eighth-century amphitheatre; Kareng Ghar, the Ahom royal palace; and Siba Doul, a Siva temple. After groups such as the All Assam Students Union and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti protested, the State Tourism Minister took the issue to Union Minister K.J. Alphons, who reportedly agreed to remove the sites from the list.

Rumblings were also heard in Kerala against the inclusion of the Dutch Palace Mattancherry Museum and the Bekal Fort. Goa initially protested against the adoption of 11 of its churches, Fort Aguada and its lighthouse, Fort Cabo de Rama, Chapora fort and Morjim beach, known for Olive Ridley turtle nesting sites, by Drishti Marine and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a 17th century church housing the sacred relics of St. Francis Xavier, a 16th century missionary saint, by V-Resorts. But after the Goa government included the Roman Catholic Church as party to the MoU, they decided to participate on their own terms.

National Culture Fund

Incidentally, this is not the first time the government has tried to enlist the assistance of the corporate sector to maintain tourist sites. In 2011, a National Culture Fund was formed, under which 34 projects were completed through public-private partnership mode. Campaign Clean India, under the United Progressive Alliance government, identified 120 monuments where corporates could adopt heritage structures as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. The India Tourism Development Corporation adopted Qutub Minar as a pilot project in 2012, while Oil and Natural Gas Corporation adopted Ellora Caves, Elephanta Caves, the Golconda Fort, Mamallapuram, the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.

Similar schemes implemented overseas, such as the Valore Paese in Italy, have proved more creative in their intent and less commercially exploitative. The Valore Paese encouraged entrepreneurs under the age of 40 to apply to transform old and abandoned heritage structures. The idea was to transform little known cultural spaces off the beaten track and promote tourism in newer destinations. Most of these buildings were located along cycle paths and would be converted into spas, small hotels and other recreational spaces to create a revenue stream. Thus, the scheme envisaged multipurpose benefits.

On the contrary, the Indian government’s scheme plans to hand over World Heritage sites for maintenance. The Red Fort is among the top three sites in India that generate the highest foreign exchange earnings (FEE). According to the Economic Survey, foreign tourist arrivals stood at 10.2 million in 2017, while FEEs stood at $27.7 billion. Among centrally protected ticketed monuments for domestic visitors, the Taj Mahal was the most visited monument in 2016, followed by the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort, while for foreign visitors, the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and the Qutub Minar were the most visited, all of which are being handed over for adoption under the scheme. The Taj Mahal generates Rs.21 crore in ticket sales annually, the Qutub complex Rs.10 crore and Humayun’s Tomb, Rs.6 crore.

Under fire for its scheme, the government tried to clarify that the MoU signed for the Red Fort was only for the development, operations and maintenance of tourism amenities in and around it. “It envisages limited access of non-core areas and no handing over of monument is involved. It is clarified that the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ is essentially a non-revenue generating project. It is part of responsible tourism where the Monument Mitra essentially spends his CSR funds for upkeep and maintenance, etc. and gets limited visibility. The agency was selected on the basis of unique concept of vision bid and no financial bid is involved.” The idea behind the “Adopt a Heritage” project was to rope in private players to ensure cleanliness and to provide easy accessibility, public conveniences, illumination, night-viewing facilities, cafeterias, museums, shopping areas, drinking water facilities, money exchange, digital interactive kiosks, digital (LED) screening, light and sound shows, battery-operated vehicles, and so on.

When India gained Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the tricolour from the Red Fort. Since then, every year on August 15, the Prime Minister gives a speech from the ramparts of the fort. Next year, when the Prime Minister delivers his speech, the Dalmia logo might appear bigger than the Indian flag and no one would be amused.

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