If the Union government’s new heritage management project is successful, tourist amenities at the Taj Mahal will soon be branded with the logo of the private company that wins the bid to operate them.

The Ministry of Tourism project, called “Adopt a Heritage”, was launched in September to allow private and public sector corporations to adopt most of India’s top heritage sites. The companies will be responsible for building, operating and maintaining tourism infrastructure at 105 monuments and natural heritage sites up for adoption. The infrastructure includes providing amenities like toilets, drinking water, accessibility for the disabled, signage, audio guides, illumination, canteens, ticketing and maintenance of cleanliness and security.

In exchange, the companies will get brand visibility at the sites and an opportunity to “share the responsibility” of improving India’s heritage tourism by becoming Monument Mitras (literally, friends of monuments) as a part of their corporate social responsibility obligations. The tourism ministry, along with the culture ministry and the Archaeological Survey of India, which manages these sites, has already shortlisted 24 companies for the adoption of 76 monuments around the country.

According to a Hindustan Times report on March 23, infrastructure conglomerate GMR and tobacco company ITC Ltd are currently bidding to adopt the Taj Mahal. The iconic tomb in Agra was not initially on the list of monuments to be adopted under the Adopt a Heritage scheme, because of its importance. However, it was added to the list in February and a seven-member Oversight and Vision Committee will now decide whom to hand over the bid to.

GMR and ITC are among the companies reportedly bidding to adopt the Taj Mahal. (Photo credit: Creative Commons).

The complete list of monuments up for adoption is exhaustive, including many of India’s most-visited heritage palaces, tombs, minars, forts, caves, temples, stupas, step-wells, parks and even natural sites like Ladakh’s Pangong Lake and the Sunderbans National Park in West Bengal.

According to the project website, the Adopt a Heritage project is meant to address the challenges that the Archaeological Survey of India and other government bodies are facing in operating tourism infrastructure at heritage sites. By allowing private players to build, operate and maintain “tourist-friendly” and “world class amenities” at these sites, the expectation is that the project will boost domestic and international tourism.

Archaeologists have reacted to the Adopt a Heritage project with a mixture of enthusiasm, hesitation and dread. While some believe that the privatisation of tourism amenities is the ideal way for a resource-strapped Archaeological Survey of India to maintain its ticketed sites, others believe the government needs to tread with extreme caution.

“On paper, this sounds like a great initiative because the government cannot possibly take care of everything,” said Abhijit Dandekar, an archaeologist from Pune’s Deccan College. “But in actuality, we have to closely look into what kind of proprietorship the private companies employ, because monuments should not be exploited.”

The guidelines

In September, the tourism ministry initiated the first phase of Adopt a Heritage by opening bids for 93 Archaeological Survey of India-ticketed monuments. By October, seven companies were shortlisted to adopt 14 sites. These included Delhi’s Jantar Mantar (to be adopted by SBI Foundation), Odisha’s Sun temple (to be adopted by TK International Ltd), as well as the Qutub Minar, the Hampi temples in Karnataka, Maharashtra’s Ajanta Caves and Leh Palace in Kashmir, all of which are to be adopted by Yatra Online Pvt Ltd.

In February, the ministry gave Letters of Intent to another 17 shortlisted companies for the adoption of 62 monuments, while signing a memorandum of understanding with the Adventure Tour Operator Association of India for the adoption of the Gangotri temple area and Ladakh’s Mt Stok Kangri.

The Adopt a Heritage website provides detailed compliance guidelines for the manner in which selected companies are to build various tourism amenities at heritage sites. Once a memorandum of understanding is signed with a company, the contract will last for up to five years and can be terminated if the company does not comply with Archaeological Survey of India guidelines.

The guidelines state, among other things, that the legal status of a monument will not change after adoption, and the company will not collect any revenues from the public unless cleared by the government. Any profits made by the company will have to be put towards maintenance and upgradation of the tourism facilities. The guidelines also outline the kind of logo and brand visibility the companies are to get, to ensure that it is in sync with the aesthetics of the monuments.

The temples in Hampi, Karnataka, are among the many monuments up for adoption. (Photo credit: Creative Commons).

These strict guidelines, according to Mumbai-based archaeologist Kurush Dalal, are what make Adopt a Heritage a promising way to help grow tourism at India’s heritage sites.

“Versions of this kind of project have been considered in the past, and the government has been wary of being blamed for giving monuments away to private parties,” said Dalal, who teaches archaeology at Mumbai University. “But this time the government has put in a lot of terms and conditions that have to be followed, and the monument itself is out of bounds for any kind of intervention.”

A precedent in Maharashtra

In 2007, the government of Maharashtra had announced its own adopt-a-monument scheme, inviting private and public sector companies to adopt heritage sites for a period of five years. This was extended to 10 years in 2014 because of the poor response from companies. So far, the only site to be adopted by a private company under this scheme is Osmanabad district’s Naldurg fort, where tourism amenities are now being managed by Unity Multicons. The company has also been given a plot of land near the fort where it is building a resort.

“When this scheme was launched, those of us in the archaeology community were not very thrilled about the fort being given away, but now I am more positive about it,” said Dalal, who claims he has seen a huge boost in tourist footfalls at Naldurg fort after it was adopted. “The company has cleaned up the fort, made lawns, paved the road and made it more accessible, and desilted the lake near the fort to start boat rides. It may not be perfect, but perfect is something we have to work towards.”

Arvind Jamkhedkar, retired director of archaeology and museums with the Maharashtra government, is a little less enthusiastic about the initiative. When the state’s adopt-a-monument scheme was launched, Jamkhedkar was on the committee appointed to advise the government about the terms and conditions needed for adoption of monuments.

“One of the companies bidding for adoption of Naldurg fort had proposed starting boat rides in the moat of the fort and horse-riding in the open areas, so we had advised the government to be cautious,” said Jamkhedkar. “Private companies are concerned about their revenues, and they don’t know much about conservation work. So the responsibility of the state increases in terms of supervising these companies closely.”

Even as he advises caution, Jamkhedkar believes that private parties focused on handling just one or two monuments would be much better equipped to maintain heritage sites than large, over-burdened organisations like the Archaeological Survey of India. “Even people don’t care about monuments when they are handled by the government,” he said. “Everybody scribbles on heritage structures and desecrates them. But with private security staff, people would not be able to do this.”

All about priorities

Shereen Ratnagar, an archaeologist based in Mumbai, is among those opposed to the government’s attempts to pass on its responsibilities of maintaining tourism amenities to private players.

“This is an absolute no-no,” she said. “The government has been doing such horrible financial bungling, and now it wants citizens to pick up the bill. Why do we need public-private partnerships all the time? Tourism at monuments is the government’s responsibility, just like health or education.”

Dalal, however, emphasises that the government does not have the capacity to manage the tourism infrastructure at most monuments that desperately need to be upgraded. “The ASI recognises that given its mandate, the shortage of manpower and of money, it cannot do all this,” he said. “The government cannot say heritage is its priority when there are so many bigger priorities in the country.”