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Hurdles to heritage preservation

India had a reason to cheer last week as two heritage sites located in the country made it to UNESCO’s World Heritage List (WHL).

Hurdles to heritage preservation
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New Delhi

The Rudreswara temple, known popularly as the Ramappa temple located in Palampet, near Warangal in Telangana is one of the heritage sites. The other site is Dholavira, the Harappan city in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. With these inclusions, India now has a total of 40 historically important sites in the WHL, which also includes Tamil Nadu’s Chola Temples and the structures in Mahabalipuram. Archaeological curiosity has peaked in TN over the past few weeks, thanks to the discovery of five skeletons at a site in Keezhadi in Sivaganga district where the Architectural Survey of India (ASI) has resumed excavation work post lockdown relaxations.

A fringe benefit also seems to have come TN’s way, as around 22 sites in the southeastern Chinese city of Quanzhou which includes a temple with links to Hinduism were added to the WHL last week. Beijing has been striving to promote the coastal province Fujian and Quanzhou as a critical sea trade link that has witnessed the mixing of multicultural communities, including those from TN a millennia ago. Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had announced establishing sister-state relations between TN and Fujian, during Jinping’s visit here in 2019. Quanzhou’s historic ties with TN were instrumental in this initiative. But, China has not mentioned Quanzhou’s links to TN in its submission document applying for the former’s heritage status but has only referred to Hinduism. Tally-wise, China has 56 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just one less than Italy which has the maximum such sites globally.

The listing carries benefits with it. UNESCO offers help to signatories to safeguard such sites by providing technical assistance as well as professional training. Emergency aid is also provided to sites in danger. For instance, UNESCO extended over $4 mn in aid to help reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddha structures in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban. The recognition is also aimed at inspiring citizens and the local administrations of the respective regions where these heritage sites are located to work harder towards the preservation of such sites for future generations.

International recognitions aside, India is working on a tight leash, in matters of budgetary spending towards culture. In Feb 2021, the allocations made for the Ministry of Culture (MoC) stood at Rs 2,688 cr, which is a reduction of Rs 461 cr from the previous year. The 15% slash in allocations was made over a 30% downward revision for the previous year due to the lockdown. The actual expenditure incurred by the MoC as part of the GDP was a measly 0.017% in 2010-11, and it dipped to 0.012% in 2019-20. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Culture had highlighted in 2020 that there was zero growth in allocations made to the MoC in the last five years.

Ironically, two years ago it was reported that the ASI which is the nation’s apex body entrusted with the protection of monuments spent Rs 305.3 cr on its headquarters since 2016, while it coughed up Rs 206.55 cr in 2017-18 towards conservation of as many as 3,688 centrally protected monuments under its aegis. ASI divides the heritage sites it looks after into 20 circles based on geographic location. The expenditure ASI incurred on Chennai circle dipped from Rs 10.70 cr in 2014-15 to Rs 4.6 cr in 2017-18. These might appear like shortcomings on the part of the government, which would require an overhaul in heritage preservation protocols. But what can ordinary citizens do about the upkeep of heritage sites? Monuments are often defaced by miscreants, who scribble on the walls and even steal bits of its structure as keepsake mementoes. These sites are not tourist destinations that offer locales for selfies. They are an essential and irrefutable link to our past and a part of our own cultural identity.

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