Insights into Editorial: Indian heritage’s economic potential
Built heritage is a significant public good and is recognized as such in the Constitution’s Seventh Schedule. It nurtures our collective memories of places and is a significant constituent in the identity of cities. It has invaluable potential to contribute to our knowledge of not just history and the arts, but also science and technology. Several buildings and sites throughout the country, even entire areas or parts of historic cities, are examples of sustainable development. They demonstrate complex connections of man with nature.
Need to protect heritage sites:
Unlike other intangible forms of cultural inheritance, our built heritage is an irreplaceable resource. It is site-specific. Knowledge gained from such resources can provide constructive ways to address development challenges.
- India, with several millennia of history, boasts of a diverse and rich built heritage. Each region of our subcontinent boasts of monumental buildings and remarkable archaeology. Yet, less than 15,000 monuments and heritage structures are legally protected in India—a fraction of the 600,000 protected in the UK.
- Persistent oversight of the values of our heritage is one of the major paradoxes of physical planning and urban development in post-colonial India. Conservation of heritage is not seen as a priority to human need and development. Heritage sites are more often than not seen as consumables and usually end up as the tourism industry’s cash cows and little else.
- Even those structures considered to be of national/state or local importance in India and protected as such remain under threat from urban pressures, neglect, vandalism and, worse, demolition, only for the value of the land they stand upon.
- This poor state of preservation of a large part of our national heritage is a result of the inability of those entrusted with their care and management to unlock the economic potential of these sites and demonstrate that conservation efforts can lead to meeting development objectives in a more sustainable manner.
What needs to be done now?
- The government must ensure that visits to monuments and archaeological sites are exciting for visitors. It is required that the cultural context and intangible heritage—music, food, ritual, dress, personalities, sport, festivals—associated with the sites be explained to the visitor. Cultural events that would usually attract large numbers should be organized at less visited monuments and heritage enthusiasts encouraged to buy annual passes that allow unlimited repeat visits. Funds spent on introducing such measures and facilities will quickly yield rich dividends.
- To pass on our built heritage to future generations in a better condition than we inherited it, liberalization of the cultural sector needs to be brought in and responsibility entrusted to private entities, universities, non-profits, even resident welfare associations. A combination of non-governmental partners engaging the specialists required and government agencies supervising conservation efforts could ensure that the highest standards are met.
- Heritage buildings everywhere utilize local materials; the skills to work upon these are in the local communities. Obviously, any conservation effort then has to source locally—creating employment and economic opportunities. Many an Indian ruler commissioned forts, palaces and temples in times of drought as a life-saving economic incentive for the populace. “Make in India” objectives will thus be met by any well planned and implemented conservation effort while simultaneously creating an economic asset that continues to pay rich dividends for years to come.
- Central government grants could be made available to fund conservation efforts by the states and private owners. Property tax waivers, permission for change of land use and transferable development rights are amongst other incentives those residing within the 100m “prohibited zones” of nationally protected monuments could receive. Besides being used as hotels or museums or libraries, heritage buildings could also easily be adapted to serve as schools or clinics—lending economic value to local communities. While representing a higher aesthetic and building quality, it is always more economical to convert a building than to build afresh.
- To be meaningful, conservation works need to be coupled with urban improvements, improved transport infrastructure, providing economic opportunities, and improving health, education and sanitation infrastructure. Only then will heritage assets be valued by those living around them. Conservationists have often expected local communities to contribute towards the conservation effort while not offering any incentives and imposing heavy restrictions. Such an approach is never likely to succeed.
As the Vienna memorandum on world heritage and contemporary architecture adopted by UNESCO points out, the historic cities are in continuous use and have to ‘respond to development dynamics.’ The challenge is to ‘enhance the quality of urban life without compromising existing values of the historic city.’ Planning measures have to be quickly devised but before that steps should be taken to recognize historic cities as cultural artifacts that are worth protecting. Just as anywhere else in the world, our built heritage can be leveraged for economic gain through tourism dollars as well as opportunities for craftsmen and local communities.