Protecting heritage

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TERRORISM has now become the enemy on an unprecedented scale, the enemy that destroys the quality of life in the present and even seeks to annul the past. Previously terrorism was related only to the country in which it arose, but now it has a transnational dimension. This gives it more power and makes it even more difficult to control. In an ironic way it is becoming the reverse side of transnational politics and transnational economics.

The essence of terrorism is unlawful violence in order to obtain a ransom and seeking its sanction through justifying intolerance. At one level there are threats of killing people by hijacking a plane or kidnapping a film star. But terrorism is now also turning to destroying monuments that have a historical value and are part of a society’s cultural heritage: we have earlier witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid and more recently the destruction of the statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. Whatever be the value of the object, the act of destruction is identical, the motives are similar and both are born of intolerance.

The wilful destruction of monuments is not an isolated act perpetrated by a handful of religious bigots who somehow go out of control. It draws on organized, political violence. To argue that these are acts arising solely out of a religious conviction is to understand them only partially. Neither Hinduism nor Islam as religions propagate the destruction of the places of worship of other religions. Nevertheless, religion is the idiom that is used.

The real objective is frequently political; therefore, the political dimension cannot be dismissed. To understand the threat, and the implicit blackmail, involves knowing who is organizing the destruction, what the political motive is, and how it is being legitimized. In the past too when religious monuments have been destroyed there have been political aspects apart from the obviously religious, but we hesitate to discuss these aspects. How else can one explain a Hindu king desecrating a temple or a Muslim sultan desecrating a mosque?

The act of violence is committed when the political agenda begins to fail. A mosque had to be destroyed to ensure political mobilization to facilitate the capturing of power. Muslims in Afghanistan over the last millennium have taken pride in Bamiyan; why then has the Taliban made it a target? The Taliban was and is desperate because its policies have failed: its legitimacy to rule has not been recognized; it faces sanctions, and those that initially helped to build it into an organization – the CIA in tandem with Pakistan, to quote Selig Harrison – are now giving it no support. In its failure, it takes revenge on its own people and especially the women of Afghanistan by its brutalizing acts, and it kills Shia Muslims because Iran opposed the threat. It then held the international community to ransom and destroyed that which was more valuable to the world outside than to its own assessment of its cultural heritage.

This can now become a regular mechanism of political blackmail. There are enough politically disturbed areas with heritage sites. Monuments are not the only form of heritage but are the most visible on the landscape and their destruction is more dramatic than of other forms of heritage. We in India have now become vulnerable with the blurring of the distinction between religion and religious fundamentalism. The definition of cultural heritage is now alarmingly being appropriated by those who have few qualms about destroying the heritage of all except what they recognize as their own.

How do we try and counter this menace of the wilful destruction of a heritage? It seems to me that those that destroy such a heritage do not understand what is meant by the concept of a cultural heritage, nor do others who condone the act. The law is equally ineffectual in most cases, in bringing to book the terrorists and those who have encouraged them.

Part of the problem perhaps is that we have a rather distanced view of what we call our cultural heritage. The object or the monument becomes an abstraction. This distance and this abstracting of the concept needs change. A larger and more long-term view should replace the piecemeal reaction to each act of serious vandalism. This can only be done through large numbers of people being made conscious of the value of even something as obvious as a monument.

We have faced two cases of threats to protected monuments in recent times. Arrangements for the Yanni concert at the Taj Mahal in Agra involved cutting through the area demarcated by the court as the protected area. The court orders were set aside by every government agency making the arrangements. This was justified by the curious logic that the takings would be enormous and would be used to protect the Taj! A handful of us who protested, reminding the court of its own decisions, were dismissed by a section of the media as ‘litigationists’.

More recently there was trouble at Hampi, the Vijaynagar capital. Two bridges have been built which threaten the site. There has been an international protest and Hampi may be taken off the list of World Heritage sites. This would have a negative effect on tourism and on our international image as a country sensitive to culture. Now there is talk of pulling down the bridges even though they are almost complete. But at the same time people living in the area are objecting to pulling down the bridges. The local communities were of course not consulted initially nor is it now being explained to them why the bridges threaten the site.

The objection is not to the building of roads and bridges, but to locating them at places that jeopardize the site. And inevitably these days one asks the question whether this is really negligence, or are a group of people making a fast buck? Bridges and roads mean traffic, shops, hotels and Hampi is a major tourist attraction.

The refusal to observe the legal statutes protecting a site does not destroy heritage, but does devalue it. If its protection can be set aside then its worth gets reduced. When there is such unconcern for the Taj and Hampi, how do we begin to protect other sites? There are of course two obvious ways of doing so, but although we have talked about them, neither has been taken seriously. One is to create a consciousness among people, and encourage those who live in the area to be the closest protectors of the site, provided they are aware of why it is important to preserve a monument or a site. Encroachments of any kind have to be fought against. This would include the performing of puja or offering of namaz in an effort to capture the monument when it is no longer used for worship. It means that every protected area has to be demarcated, and the public encouraged to report encroachments, so that legal action is possible against encroachers, as happened recently with a construction at the Qutb Minar in Delhi. Invariably political pressures, commercial entrepreneurs and bureaucratic unconcern create major problems.

There is so little public discussion on why historical and archaeological sites have a cultural significance beyond only the religious. The function of a monument and its value as cultural heritage would have to be publicly and repeatedly explained if people are to help in its protection. Heritage sites are not just tourist attractions, even if they are being used today to rake in dollars. They are an essential part of our cultural personality. It is our personality that is being destroyed in the destruction of monuments. Such destruction can neither rewrite the past, nor wipe out the past, it can only hack apart our cultural tradition.

There is a trend today – to put it mildly – to define cultural heritage only in terms of religious expression, and then too, of setting it up in a hierarchy where the heritage of one religion is believed to be superior to the rest. This breeds fundamentalism and contravenes what we have recognized as our cultural heritage. Our heritage grows out of the interweaving of many societies, many pasts, many communities, many cultures. It is this multiplicity of cultures that gives a presence to Indian civilization, different from the rest of the world. We cannot homogenize it into a single strand. What I am saying was once a platitude but now there is some hesitation in saying so. Unfortunately so few of us pause to reflect on what this means in terms of how we perceive ourselves, and what we are doing and what we can do with our heritage.

Another method of protecting heritage is to update our laws relating to heritage. An urgent re-examination of our outdated laws on antiquities could be a start. The main Antiquities Act goes back to 1858, with amendments in the mid-twentieth century. This was much before the destruction of monuments motivated by religio-political ideologies, or by the other menace now looming large, namely, the destruction of sites through submergence or extensive quarrying or massive constructions, without attention to whether or not historical remains are simultaneously being destroyed. There is also the ongoing, continuous vandalising of monuments that eventually leads to their destruction through sheer attrition. The legislation needs to be reviewed in the context of the new threats to historical monuments.

Countries sensitive to protecting their heritage have updated their laws and apply the codes of what is referred to as ‘rescue archaeology’ or ‘salvage archaeology’. The laws stipulate that whenever there is to be any change of a major kind in a specific area, the area has to be surveyed by archaeologists who then register, record or preserve what is historically important. Only then can new construction be initiated and if need be the area of construction be demarcated afresh. In other words an area has to be declared clear of a heritage site before it can be built upon. The implementation of such legislation has the advantage that it creates an awareness among large numbers of people about what is meant by heritage and the importance of its preservation.

The need to involve public participation in protecting monuments has also become imperative because governments are failing to do so. They either support agendas that have led to the destruction of historical monuments, or else they are lethargic and uncaring. A meeting of archaeologists, historians and conservationists was held four years ago in March 1997 where suggestions were made for amending the laws. We were asked to put the document containing suggestions into legal language, which we did. For the last three years it has been lying with the Archaeological Survey of India. Letters enquiring about whether it has been discussed or even partially implemented, remain unanswered.

At the end of the day there is a sense of despair and defeat. We can neither give teeth to the law, nor ensure that the law is applied. The agencies centrally concerned with protecting heritage seem to be apathetic. Can we hope to activate public opinion in both understanding the significance of cultural heritage and insisting on its being protected?

Romila Thapar

* Comments made as part of a panel discussion on ‘Fundamentalism and Heritage’, India International Centre, Delhi, 27 March 2001.


Cleaning Delhi’s air

IN Delhi we have now become quite used to our lives being disrupted because someone or the other wants to ‘clean up’ the city. As if Delhi was the only ‘dirty’ city in the country and its citizens the only ones who need clean air in India. Sometime back a slew of large industries were forced to close down and shift their operations and pollute some other place in the country. A public hearing organised after the orders were implemented revealed that tens of thousands of families lost their means of livelihood. Women came and testified how some of their sisters were forced into prostitution just to maintain their children in school. Others just went away, we don’t know where. And we don’t know how they are faring now. It doesn’t seem to matter that lives and aspirations of thousands of human beings may have been shattered forever. Some others have got international awards for environmental activism. And that makes us feel good.

A few months back we were made to feel good again. We forced another few thousand workshops, small factories and employment units to close down. Again tens of thousands of families were uprooted, unemployed and forced into penury. If they eat less our food-stocks will grow. That will make us feel even better. Maybe we can even earn a few dollars by exporting this food.

The latest effort to give us cleaner air has finally provoked a debate. The recent orders to fit all buses with CNG engines has got newspapers and TV channels excited about the appropriateness of the order. Not because thousands of children might go to bed hungry, but because some of our own children are having trouble getting to school comfortably. Well, that is good. At least some of us now have an opportunity to question the procedures which allow such disasters on a routine basis.

It is worth examining the form this debate has taken. The main questions being asked are: What was the Government of Delhi doing for three years? Isn’t CNG much cleaner than diesel? Is low sulphur diesel a good alternative? Is there any other city which has its entire bus fleet running on CNG?

The questions are posed as if we are choosing between different flavours of ice cream. There seems to be little concern over the decision-making process itself. The complexity of the technological, economic and social issues are completely ignored. Any decision which concerns the entire population of a city and its living and working patterns should come through a transparent public process. This process should have recorded every word and document submitted to the responsible committee and made them available to anyone wanting to examine the proceedings.

After receiving all the evidence, the committee should have prepared a list of options with accompanying economic and cost benefit analyses and the time period associated with each option. These options should have been put out in the public domain and comments invited. After this process was completed all the vested interests – manufacturers, fuel suppliers, transporters, environmental experts, user’s representatives, Delhi Government, and so on – should have been asked to come up with a consensus document and the rule issued accordingly. But because such democratic and participative procedures were ignored, we have landed up with less than practical and relatively unimplementable policies that may do more harm than good.

If the procedure outlined above had been followed we might have discovered very early on that any proposed technology which increases the price of buses would have the unintended result of increasing use of two-wheelers and cars. Today, commuters shell out about Rs 450 a month for a seat in a chartered bus, and for school buses around Rs 300 a month. Apparently, these fares are viable only when buses cost about Rs 5 to 10 lakhs. If the bus operators have to spend another 3-4 lakhs for retrofits or if they have to buy new buses for 18-19 lakhs, then fares are bound to increase significantly. Reports suggest that these fares would be in the range of Rs 500-700 a month for schoolchildren and around Rs 700-1,000 for chartered buses used by commuters for going to work.

With the marginal cost of using a two wheeler at about 75 paise a km, the monthly expenditure amounts to about Rs 450 per person assuming 20 km per day for 30 days. Obviously, any public transportation cost higher than this will be resisted by commuters. Since the commuters are already paying this maximum amount, any increase in fares will shift people away from buses. Seven to ten two-wheelers pollute as much as one bus, and four of them occupy as much road space as a bus when in motion. Since each bus carries 50-60 persons, if only 10% of the bus users’ population start using two-wheelers, it will have the effect of introducing another 10,000 buses on the roads of Delhi in terms of pollution and congestion.

If there is more congestion, then all other vehicles will also pollute more. In addition, an increase in the number of two wheelers are likely to increase the number of road accidents. This means that even if all the new buses emitted only clean air, the pollution load in Delhi will remain the same or even increase. Therefore, no policy which results in an increase in bus fares is likely to have a beneficial effect on air quality in Delhi unless arrangements are made to subsidise public transport through innovative local taxation policies.

Serious technical issues are also involved. There is no bus fleet owner I know of who tries to replace an entire fleet by a new technology at one go. Usually, replacements are made at rates of 5 to 10% a year because new technologies and systems need to be tested and set up gradually. This provides the advantage of obtaining the best technology every year and avoids the probability of a major disaster in choice of technology. Another important matter to bear in mind is that the efficiency of any technology in use is less than what is experienced under laboratory conditions. Since we do not have extensive experience of running CNG engines, should we not first test it on a limited fleet?

If a reasoned public process had been followed, the press, the public and the legislators of Delhi would have had a much more informed discussion on the subject. They would perhaps have unearthed many other issues. They would have discovered that very little research has been done on the type of CNG engines being proposed for Delhi. This is because such engines are very old in design and no longer used in West European countries or the USA. The research being done in the latter countries on CNG as a fuel uses Euro III or more sophisticated Euro IV engines. That is why the results from those countries are not particularly valid in the current debate in Delhi as no data from their past or the future will be of use to us. The engines being proposed in Europe use excess air ratios, accurate electronic control of throttle valves, gas composition and pressure sensors, and three-way closed loop catalytic converters using heavy metals. These technologies are not in use in India.

There are serious health issues involved as well. There is reasonable agreement among professionals that the soot particles and associated compounds produced by diesel engines – which are larger than 10 microns in size – are harmful to health. However, much less is known about much smaller particles which are less than 2 microns in size. Such particles are not very visible and because of their small size go much deeper into the lungs and have the potential of causing even greater damage. Such particles are produced in greater numbers when combustion is more efficient or takes place at higher temperatures. Since CNG burns at a higher temperature than diesel, concern is being expressed by scientists around the world that we should investigate this further before taking any irreversible decisions. We also don’t know how these ultra-small particles will behave in the atmosphere. At present, the presence of these particles is not regulated in any Indian standard and nor have any analyses been done on the production of these particles by converted CNG engines in Delhi.

All said and done, the narrow CNG vs diesel debate is not the question. Bigger issues are at stake. It’s very dangerous to base an entire fleet on a new technology with which we do not have sufficient experience. Suppose a better technology appears in another four years, we will not be able to make any use of it. We will have to wait for another ten years or more before the present fleet can be retired. It would be best if we stopped at no more than 1,000 buses in the DTC fleet and monitored them for the next couple of years. In the interim we can plan on putting another 10% of the fleet on electric trolley buses, maybe another 10-15% on modern diesel engines with particle traps, and so on.

If we do not stop the introduction of CNG buses very soon, it will lead to the crippling of the public transportation system in Delhi. This is alarming because while it is easy to transfer people from public transport to private transport, it is very difficult to get people to use public transport once they get used to private transport. Before we inflict any more damage, the least we can do is to work out the economics of the public transportation system, its funding mechanisms, and then debate the alternative technologies within the feasible domain.

Dinesh Mohan