As soon as it became known that the Ministry of Culture had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dalmia Bharat group for the “adoption” of Delhi’s Red Fort, the press and social media were flooded with comments and opinions about this move. These ranged from dire warnings that the government was “selling our national heritage” by “auctioning it off to the highest bidder”, to waggish predictions of a fully-branded India where one could sit by the waters of “Paytm Pagong lake” or enjoy a moonlit viewing of the “Adani TajMahal”.
Opposition parties were quick on the uptake, branding the government’s Adopt A Heritage scheme as yet another instance of crony capitalism (giving unprecedented visibility to a favoured brand name at a national site) or a failure of governance (where the government was unable to spare funds for monuments of prime importance). The ruling party, unusually, was caught on the backfoot. Tourism Minister KJ Alphon’s clarification that the Dalmia Bharat group was not buying or leasing the Red Fort but was only going to maintain its toilets and walkways as a Corporate Social Responsibility project was far too dull to make waves in the twittersphere convulsed with white-hot outrage and sardonic wit.
To be fair, both sides have been misrepresenting the memorandum that has just been signed. The government is right in saying the Red Fort has not been leased out, much less sold to the Dalmias. The industrial group is paying Rs 25 crore for the privilege of being associated with the site for five years. In addition, it will bear the cost of the facilities it is contracted to maintain. In return, the Dalmia Bharat group will be allowed to display its name on plaques and signage within the site, “in a discreet manner and tastefully”.
But, as detractors fear, the memorandum will allow the Dalmia Bharat group to do much more than clean the loos and improve disabled access to the monuments within the Fort. While toilets, drinking water, wheelchair ramps and signage are part of the basic amenities the group is to provide, so is illumination. With special night visits being planned, the lighting of the fort will need to be overhauled. But we know that illumination can cause damage – from the laying of conduit pipes in an archaeologically sensitive area, to the fading caused by harsh lights – and needs to be designed and implemented by experts. Worryingly, other items listed as basic amenities are the “aesthetics and cleanliness” of the site. As an expert has pointed out, cleaning a heritage site – with its ageing surfaces of sandstone, wood, marble, lime-plaster, semi-precious stones – is a specialised task. Leaving the “aesthetics” of the site to a contractor can lead to consequences that are difficult to foresee.
Another basic amenity that the memorandum enjoins the Dalmias to provide is an “app-based multi-lingual audio-guide”. Moreover, the memorandum also asks the Dalmia Bharat group to install “advanced amenities” at the Fort. These include the installation of surveillance systems and tourist-flow management, as well as a slew of “semi-commercial” activities including providing battery-operated vehicles and running cafeterias, gift shops, tourist facilitation and interpretation centres, digital interactive kiosks, sound and light shows, “regular cultural shows” and facilitating night visits to the monument.
It is hard to compute the financial costs and benefits of this memorandum. Some observers express disappointment that the government has not been able to spare funds and has needed to turn to an external source. Others say the gate-money already collected at the Red Fort is six times greater than the amount the government allocates for its upkeep; if the Fort were allowed to be financially autonomous, it would be much better off than it presently is. Yet others have pointed out that the visibility gained by the Dalmia group – at the symbolically loaded spot where the prime minister addresses the nation every Independence Day – is worth incalculably more than any costs that it would have to bear to keep the place clean. Chances are, when the cafeterias, gift shops and cultural programmes are up and running, they would significantly offset the Corporate Social Responsibility funds needed to maintain the site, making it an even more attractive proposition for the Dalmias.
The heated discussions around the Dalmia-Red Fort Memorandum have been all about “buying,” “selling,” (and “swindling”): the outrage has mostly arisen because there has been a transaction around something that should never have been on sale. We believe that national heritage is of transcendent value, and should be held above commercial interests. This idealism obfuscates the fact that heritage sites are always caught up in force-fields that unite money and monuments: either centripetally, where the monument sucks up vast quantities of money for maintenance, or centrifugally, where the monument generates vast tourism revenues. But I believe this anger is misdirected. Rather than counting quantities of rupees, when it comes to the Dalmia-Red Fort matter, we should be asking questions about quality of the work about to be taken up.
It is clear that the facilities covered by the memorandum are not peripheral, as the minister has claimed, but involve the core of the site and the public’s interaction with it. They include the interpretation of the site, the itinerary and time of the visit, and the events that are allowed to take place within it. There is a chance that all of these will be transformed in the course of the new arrangement. The critical question is how this transformation will be guided, and how this can be used as an opportunity for the betterment, rather than the coarsening of the site. How can we improve our record of restoring and maintaining our sites, and making them accessible and intelligible to a range of visitors? How can we strike the balance between accessibility and overuse? How do we recognise what constitutes good practices and high quality, and how do we ensure standards that benefit both visitors and monuments in the long run?
In recent years, we have seen the government retreating from the role of executing projects in many fields. Instead of building airports, for instance, the Airports Authority has been commissioning private developers to build them while retaining control over the tendering processes and general oversight. This has worked because the tenders call for proposals from developers who have the relevant track record and skills. Where, in the current process of connecting a corporate house and a national monument, is there the scope to ensure that the work will be carried out by professionals who have training and skills?
From the documents that are currently available, this does not seem to be part of the way the project has been designed. The timelines laid out in the memorandum of understanding are disturbingly swift. No conservation architect would agree that the item “Restoration and Landscaping” (which makes a mysterious appearance in the to-do list annexed to the MoU even though the minister has said it is not part of the scope of work) should be done in “0-12 months” as the memorandum lays down; and “cleaning” would not be clubbed under “housekeeping” by a conservator worth her salt. These are sensitive operations. As columnist Mukul Kesavan said in his recent article, the Aga Khan Trust spent two years on research before it began the physical process of restoring the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, and the care and sensitivity of that process are clearly visible in the result.
In the Adopt A Heritage scheme, applicants were asked to show evidence of financial soundness but not much else. Partnerships with experts in the field, for instance, were not a pre-requisite to apply. And although the corporation was allowed to adopt the monument on the basis of a “Vision Bid”, these have not been made public. The “Oversight and Vision Committee” that chose the winning bid and that is to guide the project is dominated by bureaucrats from the Ministries of Tourism and Culture. Professionals and experts who have a proven track record of excellence in the field of conservation or heritage interpretation are not central to the processes of either framing or evaluating the bids.
This is despite the fact that heritage conservation and interpretation have undergone a notable boom in India in recent years, and a number of trusts, NGOs, conservation architects, exhibition designers and content creators have used opportunities mostly in the private sector (such as havelis, heritage hotels, private museums and temporary exhibitions) to demonstrate that they can accomplish the highest international standards, and indeed have won prestigious international awards. The expertise is available but has remained peripheral to this process.
The only party involved here that can claim professional status is the Archaeological Survey of India, in whose care the Red Fort has remained for more than a century. For the commentators who have argued that the maintenance of national monuments is rightly the duty of the state, it would be sobering to see how the Fort has fared under the Archaeological Survey. Let us look at one exquisite portion of the imperial apartment known as the tasbih-khana or meditation room, where the famous “scales of justice” jali is located. A famous portrait of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar shows him seated against this screen, though a velvet hanging obscures the most delicate marble tracery that can be seen in a photograph taken by JD Beglar in the 1870s. Every petal of every marble flower seems to gently quiver in space; the geometric patterns are like lace.
Amazingly, this jali survived the looting and the vandalism wreaked on the Red Fort by British soldiers after the 1857 Mutiny had been put down, but it fared less well in independent India. A photograph from the 1970s shows much of the screen intact apart from one vandalised cartouche.
By 2014, about half of the main jali had disappeared and in2016 the screen had almost entirely collapsed. Today, visitors to the Red Fort are not allowed to climb onto the plinth on which the imperial apartment stands. One wonders if the restriction is meant to ease pressure on the site, or to hide the shocking truth of its condition. Meanwhile the criminal damage to the jali has remained unacknowledged, uninvestigated, unpunished and unrepaired.
Perhaps we should be grateful that the Archaeological Survey has not attempted to repair the jali, as this is likely to be much beyond its competence. The last time the Archaeological Survey went into overdrive at the Red Fort, re-laying water channels, altering landscapes and repairing inlay in marble columns, the work was so shoddy and so damaging to the site that a group of concerned citizens had to file a Public Interest Litigation in Supreme Court to get it to stop “restoring” the site. This was in 2003, under the National Democratic Alliance government, when Jagmohan was the Culture-Minister-in-a-hurry who pushed through these ill-advised repairs. The report on the damage done to the Red Fort in the name of conservation is available online here.
The Archaeological Survey’s malaise is something that needs a fuller discussion at some other point. For now, it is clear that we cannot expect it to singlehandedly manage all the monuments under its charge. Something needed to change. The Ministries of Tourism and Culture and the Archaeological Survey launched the Adopt A Heritage scheme in September 2017 to link monuments with willing sponsors and the Dalmia Bharat-Red Fort is only one among nearly a hundred “adoptions” that have been approved under the scheme. These include Travel Corporation of India’s adoption of Safdarjang’s tomb; SBI Foundation’s adoption of Jantar Mantar and Yatra Online’s adoption of the Qutb Minar and the Ajanta Caves. Indeed, something needed to change, but was this the change we needed? Let us hope for the best; let us expect the worst.
Kavita Singh is the dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.