The outrage over Union Tourism Ministry’s move to allow a corporate house to maintain the iconic Red Fort in Delhi appears largely misplaced. The public-private partnership is the surest way to not only protect and conserve historic monuments and heritage sites but also to attract a large number of domestic and foreign tourists. The Tourism Ministry’s ‘Adopt a heritage’ project allows private companies to take up maintenance of the area around the monuments and improve tourist amenities. It is unfortunate that the agreement with the Dalmia Bharat Group for maintaining the 17th century monument has become a political controversy. The Congress, Trinamool Congress and CPI (M) have slammed the government for involving the corporate group in the maintenance of the monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and even went to the extent of accusing it of mortgaging the symbol of India’s independence. However, a balanced view needs to be taken to make a distinction between handing over heritage sites to the private sector and involving it in the better upkeep of the national treasures. World over, governments actively involve local communities, philanthropists, heritage experts and corporate groups in the maintenance and upkeep of historic monuments. One of the key reasons for reluctance of international tourists to visit Indian monuments is the poor maintenance and lack of basic facilities like clean drinking water and toilets at these sites. In most cases, they are pictures of neglect and official apathy.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the agency responsible for guarding over 3,000 monuments across the country, is cash-strapped and overly bureaucratic. Successive governments have failed to professionalise the maintenance of heritage sites. As a result, a majority of them lacks basic amenities. India receives barely 10 million foreign visitors a year, despite being endowed with a breathtaking array of monuments while a country like Spain, which is seven times smaller than India, attracts over 80 million international tourists. It would be hypocritical to sneer at the participation of the corporate sector in improving the facilities around these monuments. There is no reason why private capital and the best practices that come with it should not be involved in the matters of culture and archaeology when it has permeated all other sectors. The restoration of Humayan’s Tombs by the Aga Khan Foundation was widely appreciated for the meticulous professional work. Italy has the largest number of Unesco Heritage Sites in the world, and it has handed over most of them to private corporations for restoration and upkeep in return for branding opportunities. It is an internationally accepted practice that maintenance and operation of basic facilities are given to private players to enhance the overall experience of visitors.