This week’s announcement by the Indian culture ministry of a new drive to count the nation’s monuments and sites of archaeological interest hints that the government’s previous approach had a certain cavalier complacency.
Explaining the need for the government’s first census of historic buildings and antiquities, culture minister Ambika Soni warned that the country risked losing a number of these sites if swift action was not taken. Last year, amid considerable embarrassment, she was forced to admit that 35 theoretically protected monuments had already disappeared because of rapid urbanization and development—12 of them in Delhi, not far from her own office.
Her proposed creation of both a National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities and a National Heritage Site Commission, outlined on New Year’s Eve, has, however, dismayed some campaigners for the preservation of the nation’s heritage, raising as it does the prospect of yet more committees to address an increasingly urgent problem.
“Do we need a commission to do what already should have been done? No,” said A.G.K. Menon, who heads the Delhi section of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a non-governmental organization also known by its acronym, Intach.
With more than half a million people moving each year into an already bursting Delhi, the pressure to build new homes is eating into every available space. Despite existing laws aimed at protecting heritage sites, green areas and stretches of land around monuments are shrinking. The same process can be seen in every city across India.
“Urbanization automatically creates pressure,” says culture secretary Abhijit Sengupta, the senior civil servant in the ministry. ”Our archaeologists have to be more alert and more efficient. Management of these monuments is becoming a big challenge.” Under 1992 rules, new construction is barred within 100m, or 330 feet, of the 3,600 historically significant buildings under the Archaeological Survey of India. The rules, however, are not consistently enforced, and ASI does not have the manpower to monitor all infringements.
“The law is never the issue, unfortunately it is the implementation of the law that is the problem,” said Jagmohan, a former urban development minister who goes by one name. He said enforcement agencies lacked the will to apply the law to fight politicians, developers and property dealers. “Urbanization itself doesn’t damage the monuments,” he said. “It is the illegalities that do the damage.”
Take the Khirki Masjid, a 14th century mosque in a prosperous part of south Delhi, admired by conservationists for its latticed windows, minarets and domes. Despite its architectural significance and protected status, this is not a building that attracts many tourists. Officials have turned a blind eye to the appearance of several new five-storey apartment blocks, painted in garish yellows and orange, on the fringes of the site, their ornate wrought-iron balconies edging over the fence marking the mosque’s perimeter.
“It is a very beautiful building, but a large number of residential buildings have come up around it in the past 20 years,” says Intach chairman S. K. Misra. Despite the violations of the 100m rule, no action has been taken. “Political factors may be operating,” Misra says, adding, “The ASI lacks the enforcement mechanism and the funds.”
With an annual budget of Rs300 crore ($76 million), ASI has just $21,000 to spend on 3,600 monuments a year. Given that major sites such as the Taj Mahal suck up much of that funding, many are left with very little. There is a stark disconnect between the exemplary work carried out on premier tourist attractions, such as the Taj and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, and the neglect of more obscure places.
The government is increasingly concerned about the fate of the monuments not embraced by ASI. Not only do current rules extend protection to a highly selective number of monuments, they also do not apply to areas of natural beauty or to buildings under 100 years old. Ministry officials say a full list of sites would run into hundreds of thousands.
But, there may be a new source of help at hand, for India and other nations undergoing a wave of new construction.
Concerned by the pressures the rapid pace of urbanization has placed on heritage sites in developing countries, national trust organizations from around the world met in Delhi in December to set up an international support group, aimed at helping nations protect their cultural monuments.
“It comes from a realization that we are so much stronger when we work together,” said Simon Molesworth, the chairman of International National Trusts Organization, which unites 45 countries. Molesworth is a former chairman of the Australian Council of National Trusts. “The greatest need is coming from some of the developing countries, where, in their enthusiasm to develop their nations, they have found they are losing their heritage,” he said. “The organization has come about in response to requests from these countries, who are saying, ‘We need your help.”’
India’s national trust, Intach, founded in 1984, is already very well established, but Misra, its chairman, said that, in addition to soliciting assistance from colleagues abroad, it would be helping other countries in Asia and eastern Europe. Offering advice and expertise, the organization hopes to help countries avoid errors like those, for example, made by Singapore, which destroyed so much of its past in its rush to modernize and is now trying to recreate its heritage to enhance its appeal. Rather than attempting to take on the government and big business, the organization aims to persuade the public to fight for the preservation of its culture. “It is more about changing mind sets, so that people are not so passive,” Molesworth said.
©2008/International Herald Tribune
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