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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Heritage Matters

Having been actively involved for a considerable period of time in matters relating to heritage, I often wonder whether conservation of heritage should really be of concern for a nation steeped in poverty and way down in the list of developing nations. This despite the fact that results notwithstanding considerable effort is perpetually underway by various governmental and non-governmental agencies in bringing national focus on a subject that is at the core of our civilization and culture. My concern primarily twofold, one whether the effort is adequate and second whether it is really worth the while. Serious doubts and divergent viewpoints prevail and cast their shadow on the entire heritage scenario.

The efforts are apparently many though the general condition of the built heritage around the country and the manner in which the entire subject is handled raises serious doubts about the efficacy of the efforts as well as the men piloting the cause. That the nation has 34 sites that are classified as world heritage is a cause for satisfaction, but is merely piloting and ensuring world heritage nominations for 34 sites an achievement enough for a nation that lays claim to the oldest living civilization in the world. Yes, the entire process itself and the manner in which it is handled gives sufficient room for seriously doubting our intentions in heritage affairs.

Having experienced the subject first hand, I have no qualms in accepting that despite the shortfalls and the setbacks, an amazing amount of work has been done by the railways in this direction. A number of new railway museums have been set up, many of the hill railways have been brought on the world heritage list, one of the finest steam locomotive sheds in the world has been set up at Rewari and frequent runs of antique steam locomotives is inspiration enough for further committed heritage conservation efforts. On the contrary, with the exception of a few committed individuals like the Mohammad of the ASI, Ritish Nanda and a few more who continue non-stop with their mission of improving heritage sites, the rest of the efforts for a country the size of ours, can at best be called as pathetic.

The clamor for filing nominations for world heritage sites with all its attendant committees and NGO’s jumping in the bandwagon defies logic. Having been earlier responsible for filing successful world heritage nominations for two sites almost singlehandedly, namely the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya I am convinced that sincere committed efforts by a deeply involved bureaucrat is necessary and also adequate for preparing nominations that successfully pass the test. It is therefore rather unfortunate to witness the never ending cycle of discussions and confabulations merely for being able to successfully prepare and file a well deserving nomination, that of Delhi in the category of a world heritage city and yet, the nomination is still due past the first stage.

Why only world heritage status? Is this encryption and the numbers thereof are the only indicator of a nation’s richness and its commitment in matters relating to heritage? True it is that the international roving tourist has access to the list of places declared as world heritage and therefore the site witnesses more footfalls of the “videshi” kind, but is that it? While heritage remains the most visible and important component of tourism, the world over, the need to conserve the same also because the heritage of a nation warrants conservation for posterity cannot be denied. And therefore the need remains for a pragmatic and holistic approach that is not confined to merely filing world heritage nominations.

A few years back I had unsuccessfully mooted a concept of declaring sites as “National Heritage” on lines similar to “World Heritage”, but unfortunately the idea did not germinate. This idea emerged out of the notion that while the nation has 34 world heritage sites which remain the focus of conservationists and the sarkari machinery there is a need widen the focus from mere 34 sites by creating a second tier of say around two hundred sites that can be classified as “National Heritage” on lines similar and through a process almost identical to that for “World Heritage Sites”. Creation of a national heritage committee and establishment of a national heritage convention with the states, union territories and the archaeological survey of India as its members can perhaps be the first step in this direction with the detailed modalities being worked out in due course.

This second tier is essential also because the nation does not have the resources or the wherewithal to adequately conserve and maintain the over ten thousand sites that it perhaps has. Prioritizing, also in the matter of conservation of heritage is therefore an administrative compulsion that should emerge as a national priority. Subsequently, based on the success and experience gained over time, a third tier of “State Heritage” that may have almost a thousand sites can also be considered.

Let the efforts not remain confined merely to the realm of world heritage and they need to spill over to conserve in a greater depth the extremely rich heritage of this great nation.


  1. when people like rajesh agarwal and manu goel head the prestigious post of ed/heritage what else can you expect.

    just wish that declared site are conserved.

  2. As a part of my MBA stint at ISB, I had done a consulting project for Nalanda University, which comprised of devising the marketing strategy for Nalanda. We visited Nalanda and it was such an eye-opener. Such rich cultural heritage lying waste due to years of administrative apathy. Fortunately, the present Bihar Govt with some committed professionals is now reviving the legacy of the place. Sir, please go through this blog - http://nalanda-insatiableinoffering.blogspot.in/

    1. Nalanda had been the renowned seat of learning in its hey days. Unfortunately heritage like everything else under the sun has suffered because of nincompoop bureaucrats and also bureaucratic apathy. Let us hope that someday a new system would emerge and the country would surge forward.