The problem

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ONE might have imagined that in a society as seeped in delusions of past grandeur, forever claiming recognition as the world’s oldest living civilization, the conservation of heritage, both natural and built, would enjoy high priority. Our heritage is after all more than a legacy; in myriad ways it defines us, provides us an identity and helps locate us in our uniqueness.

Any such expectation is unfortunately belied by the way we, both citizens and the state, treat our cultural heritage. More than the air of decay and unconcern, what is shocking is the veritable vandalism marking even our most prized monuments. Take as an instance the ongoing controversy surrounding the Taj, without doubt the best-known symbol of our composite culture. The fact that a multiplicity of authorities could so easily visualise dwarfing the marble mausoleum with a commercial mall, this despite a plethora of legislations forbidding any construction activity close to the site, should force us to rethink what conservation actually means for us.

Is it, as the early Orientalists and the current post-modernists claim, that India and Indians are ahistorical, at least in the conventional western sense. It is routinely asserted that what we, as a civilization, more value are living traditions, not material artefacts of the past. Even more common is the proposition that conservation is an elitist concern, unnecessarily locking in scarce resources – funds, technology, personnel – better deployed for meeting basic needs.

Even though there is a smattering of truth to the above, the incontestable fact is that each of us, rich or poor, relate in our unconscious to some site or structure, secular or religious, which we both treasure and are willing to invest in. It can hardly be asserted that the thousands of places which not only survive, but receive care and attention, are only as a result of state or elite concern.

Nevertheless, what we choose to preserve and protect, or destroy, is a reflection of decisions taken by society and its leadership at a specific time and context. This, in a multicultural, layered and segmented society, with each fraction claiming different, often conflictual pasts and symbols cannot but be deeply contentious. Just think of the deep passions aroused by the destruction of the Babri Masjid, seen as living testimony to our composite culture by some and a symbol of national humiliation by others.

The problem, however, is more complex than whether we are an ahistorical people, or what site/building reflective of which style/period/lineage we choose to invest in. The process of conservation is today seen as a specialised task, a responsibility of experts governed by their professional canons and a range of national and international covenants. It is this institutional political process which defines not only what should be conserved/restored, but how. And therein arise a range of conflicts.

Much of our extant ‘wisdom’ about conservation comes to us from the West, in particular the Venice Charter, drawn up in the wake of the Second World War. In its essence, the framework privileges the structure over the site and experts over people. In multicultural contexts such as ours where most sites/structures embody multiple ownership and use, an uncritical application of international canons can create problems.

For instance, can the state take over and entrust the restoration and maintenance of the ghats at Varanasi or the Jama Masjid to the Archaeological Survey of India? What of ‘historic’ buildings in our densely populated walled cities, if not the city itself? It may be easier to take over and restore abandoned structures, but what if the sites/structures are in occupation, for instance the Ghalib Haveli in Delhi?

Much has been made of a ‘no building zone’ around recognised historic sites. How does one apply it in the case of Mehrauli where every inch of land is covered by a bewildering array of structures of varying vintage, many in continuous occupation? Not quite like ‘restoring’ the Acropolis or the Pyramids. Any effort to isolate the symbol from the community of users is likely to be meet fierce resistance.

Alongside the broad philosophical/political concerns are technical questions relating to issues of authenticity – of materials, styles, technology and skills. How often have we witnessed fundamental differences between modern and traditional knowledge and practitioners. In the event of conflict, whose views prevail? And given the internally differentiated nature of both modernity and tradition, exercising choice becomes even more complex.

Associated with any initiative are costs, both who is to provide funding and how the resources invested will be recovered. A popular solution is to seek public-private partnerships and corporatise each site hoping to cash in on tourism potential, mainly foreign. It is insufficiently realised that such processes, while helping reduce the fiscal burden of the state, may well serve to further alienate the site/structure from the community. Paradoxically, however, tourism not only generates revenues but associated employment and can thereby enhance local interest in conservation.

Finally, what of legislation as a route to conservation. Unfortunately, much of our law-making process is shrouded in secrecy and kept confined to the officialdom. Equally, that few legislators are either interested in or aware of the many dimensions of the problem. The only time the common citizen learns of the rules governing a site/structure is when the restrictions imposed directly impacts his income and employment. The issue then passes into the realm of agitational politics, contributing little to clarifying the issues, and further distorting the application of the law.

It is not that nothing can be done. Both within the country and elsewhere it is possible to cite many successful cases of conservation, of private and community participation, of inclusive processes that contribute to income and employment generation and thereby ensure a sustained public interest. The challenge is to extend these isolated experiments into a wider movement such that we too as Indians can experience pride in our heritage. Otherwise, as Anand Kentish Coomaraswamy had presciently warned, we may well be left with only decaying fragments of our past.