Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 05 October 2023

‘Rationalising’ protected monuments

Source: By Divya A: The Indian Express

Claiming that many of the 3,691 centrally protected monuments (CMP) in India are “minor” monuments, a parliamentary committee has recommended that the list should be “rationalised and categorised” on the basis of their national significance, unique architectural and heritage value.

Besides, it has also raised questions about the functioning of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the custodian of all CPMs in India, in terms of its administrationsecurityrestoration work and general upkeep of heritage sites.

The panel – headed by YSRCP’s Rajya Sabha MP V Vijaisai Reddy, with more than a dozen MPs across political parties as its members – has made several recommendations in this regard. Here’s what is says:

The committee

The recommendations are part of the ‘359th Report on the Functioning of Archaeological Survey of India’ by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, which was presented to Parliament recently. During its tenure, the committee held four meetings, with the Ministry of Culture and the Administrative Head of ASI, and with NGOs Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in August.

The panel also undertook on-the-spot study visits to Mumbai and Bekal and held meetings with the representatives of the Ministry of CultureASI, and the state governments of Maharashtra and Kerala on 5 July and 8 September, respectively.

Pruning the list of protected monuments

The committee said the list includes a large number of minor monuments with no national significance. It is estimated that this applies to at least a quarter of the current list of 3,691 monuments. In this regard, it says the list includes 75 graves of colonial-era soldiers or officials of no notable importance. Some specific examples have also been cited.

For instance, “a small brick wall enclosure containing two graves located in Kumta, Karnataka, is a protected monument under the supervision of the ASI”. The graves are those of public works department engineer John Albert Cope (died in 1880) and Henry Gassen (died 1877) who worked for a cotton ginning company. The structure had no architectural value, and the individuals were of no historical significance, the committee said. Yet, they are supposed to get the same level of protection as the country’s most cherished monuments.

This approach is in keeping with the government’s decolonisation agenda. As The Indian Express learnt, in the coming times, monuments selected by the British or those that glorify the colonial era would be taken out of the CPM list, while several other monuments that “reflect Indian ethos” will be included.

The committee recommends that the list of monuments with ASI should be rationalised and categorised on the basis of their national significance, unique architectural value and specific heritage content. Deletion of some of the kosminars (milestones built by Mughals) may also be considered, because they come in the way of road-widening exercises.

Easing restrictions around monuments

The committee said the provision of a 100-metre prohibited area and 300-metre regulated area around all ASI-protected monuments leads to public inconvenience. This provision was introduced in 2010 through an amendment in the AMASR Act, 1958, and prohibits and regulates all activities like mining and construction around 100 metres and 300 metres of all the protected monuments. This, the panel said, causes problems for the local community living around it. In some cases, the entire village is within a radius of 300 metres, which makes it difficult for the village to repair their residential houses. Such a situation, at many places, creates a hostile scenario, the committee said.

The panel said the same rule applies equally to both significant and insignificant monuments. For instance, the rules above apply identically to the Ajanta and Ellora monuments as much as to kosminars, unknown cemeteries and tombs.

Fixing ASI’s core mandate

The committee said that preservation of a monument or a site is a core mandate of the ASI and recommended the central agency to develop preservation plans for all its work, especially before excavations. This includes establishing clear strategies for documenting findings, conserving artefacts, and restoring structures to ensure minimal impact on the site’s integrity. The ASI should focus on areas that have the potential to answer crucial historical questions and contribute to a deeper understanding of India’s rich past, it said.

It also advocated the use of advanced technologies such as LiDARground-penetrating radar, and 3D scanning enhanced accuracy and efficiency of excavations. Some of these techniques were recently used inside the Gyanvapi complex in Varanasi by the ASI for its court-mandated non-invasive survey, the report of which is yet to be made public.

Alternatively, to make the ASI an effective agency, it advised bifurcation of the organisation, the committee said. While the ASI can look after the core mandate – explorationexcavation and conservation aspects, the India Heritage Development Corporation (IHDC) can deal with ASI’s revenue, such as ticket collectionconducting auctionsissuing licences, running cafeterias, selling mementoes and running sound and light systems.

What happens to missing monuments?

The committee said that the CAG had declared 92 CPMs as “missing”. The ASI has located only 42 of these monuments, while the remaining 50 monuments are either affected by rapid urbanisationsubmerged under reservoirs/dams or are untraceable. The committee observes that “monuments once lost cannot ever be retrieved. The CPMS are central to our historical heritage. The ASI should, therefore, give the highest priority to ensuring the physical security of all CPMs across the country.”

It recommended that the ministry may conduct a survey of all remaining monuments to ensure their physical existence and safety. It also recommended that regular physical surveys of all CPMs should be carried out from time to time. The ASI should maintain digital log books that include textual and photographic/ video records of the monument’s physical state and location coordinates, it said, adding that this would also allow the ASI to check encroachment, if any, of these CPMs at an early stage.

Shortage of resources, fund crunch

The agency stated that as far as conservation work is concerned, there is an issue of shortage of human resources. The Ministry of Culture, under whose aegis the ASI functions, said it is finding ways and means to acquire human resources by outsourcing some work. However, the ASI expressed that this has its own limitations as such expertise is not available even outside.

The panel said India spends “a little amount” on the protection and upkeep of monuments. “It amounts to Rs 11 lakh per monument of national importance (Rs 428 crore for 3693 monuments in 2019-20),” it noted, adding that this is precious little for a culturally rich country like India.

Problems with restoration activities

The committee also said that there are certain places where restoration is being done without taking cognizance of the original design/beauty of the monument. The restoration works at many sites do not gel with the original design, it noted. In this regard, it said the ASI must undertake restoration work keeping the original structure, its relevance and aesthetics in mind. It didn’t cite any major examples here. It also said “indigenous systems and traditional practices” are not being emphasised as much as they deserve.

It said that the ASI should integrate sustainable practices in conservation and restoration projects, such as using eco-friendly materialsenergy-efficient techniques, and taking into consideration the long-term environmental impact of interventions.

In its response, the ASI said it has undertaken major conservation works at various locations across the country, including the Hoysala Temples in Karnataka (which has just been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Santiniketan in West Bengal (another recent WH site). The ASI informed the panel that it had undertaken conservation measures in foreign countries – such as Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan; Ta Prohm and Preah Vihear temples in Cambodia; My Son Group of Temples in Vietnam; and Friday Mosque in Maldives. It informed the panel that the works outside India have been widely appreciated by the international community and the authorities in Fayaztepa and Karatepa Buddhist Sites in Uzbekistan are interested in giving their conservation work to ASI.

Other concerns

The committee notes that of the 24 agreements signed with various Monument Mitras (under Adopt a Heritage scheme), effective engagement had taken place only under four MoUs. It also said concerns have been raised about the lack of prior experience of the private firms involved in restoration and conservation. There have been instances when companies without any expertise in the requisite domain are permitted to undertake those works. This has resulted in avoidable damage or destruction. It, therefore, recommended that only experienced Monument Mitras may be hired.

The committee observes that till date, 531 monuments, that is, about 14.4 per cent of ASI’s total CPMs have been encroached. However, encroachments from only nine monuments have been removed since 2015. The committee recommended that the ASI should also provide support and assistance to individuals or families affected in the process of encroachment removal and help them transition to alternative livelihoods.