A spectacular failure in upkeep

To my delight, the Supreme Court delivered a tight and well-deserved slap on the face of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) last week. It asked the ASI to explain how algae and insects are all over the Taj Mahal and whether ASI was twiddling its thumbs while algae “flew” to cover the roof and other insects crawled all over its façade.


The yellowing of the monument, the perpetual threat of a stampede, the touts that infest the place like bacteria, the lack of decent toilets, the endless environmental threats to the monument, the fact that it has not been delisted as a World Heritage site is despite the ASI, not thanks to it.


Anyone who has been around the country and seen any of the heritage sites can tell you that ASI has failed spectacularly to do its job.


A few years ago, a Lok Sabha query revealed that the so-called expert, the ASI, even managed to “lose” monuments under its care — 24 sites were declared untraceable. The sites have either been dismantled or built over. The state that usually holds the honours for general lawlessness, garbage dumps, filth and disease outbreaks also holds the crown for “monumental” apathy: 11 sites in Uttar Pradesh have been found untraceable.


You would think that with the sheer number of national monuments ASI’s budgets would be awfully stretched. But a former government secretary told me that the organisation returns funds some years after they fail to spend their budget as allocated by the culture ministry. They are not capable of spending it!


The only monuments that remain worth visiting in the country are those where the private sector has stepped in. In this newspaper I have written about Laxmi Nivas Palace (Vadodara), Mehrangarh Fort (Jodhpur), Bhau Daji Lad (Mumbai) — all maintained and managed with the help of private families and individuals. A visit to all these remains a pleasurable experience.


Since people like us hardly ever go to these public places, let me explain what it feels like. Innumerable times I have felt ashamed of my country after having got into conversations with foreigners, often strangers. The more polite ask why, when we have so many people to do it, we are unable to look after our heritage better. The more outspoken — this includes Americans and Australians — mock us. I have heard them say loudly, “Oh, this sucks”, “these Indians are filthy people”, “what kind of country is this” as they try and enter a filthy toilet at some site. Barbed comments from people who don’t know the “h” of heritage have to be borne in silence.


It’s easy for many to denounce any new attempt since they really speak putting on the blinkers. People like us don’t go and people like them don’t deserve any better. Yet we have a view on what needs or doesn’t need to be done. So my appeal to all heritage and conservation lovers, columnists and experts opposing the adopt a monument scheme: please take a Bharat Darshan and then let’s talk.


The scheme as it stands does not prevent communities, groups of individuals or even a single individual from coming forward to adopt a heritage, but I am puzzled by this mistrust of the corporates. On the one hand, we are excited by the wealth and all that corporate India brings to the table. Yet we question their motives each time they come forward to do something the rest of us are not offering to do.


Like with everything else, the government can do it just as well if — and that’s a very big if — it puts its mind to it. The tribal museum in Bhopal is a happy testimony to this. The head of the museum whom I sought out to congratulate thought I was a trifle slow since I asked him so many times whether this was a government-run facility. The tribal museum is a gem and I urge readers to make a trip to Bhopal if only to see it.