As anyone can see, India has no shortage of historical monuments, regardless of whether they come under the protection of the central government or not. Some, like the Jantar Mantar in the middle of New Delhi, do get the tender love and care that they deserve — as the latest public-private joint venture for the conservation and restoration of the 18th century structure shows. It is, however, the conditions that many of India’s countless monuments find themselves in and the manner in which they are ‘looked after’ and ‘restored’ that leaves one wondering how much we really value our monuments and whether we really care to preserve them.
There have been shocking incidents of heritage structures simply being plastered or painted over with little or no care to maintain scientific techniques and restoration standards. Even worse are the untold disappearances of monuments across the country, either because of pilferage or unsympathetic and callous development work. What is most damning is that there are laws enacted towards the protection of these monuments. But somehow, there have been too many cases where the body invested with the responsibility of protecting historic structures and the power to take action against pilferers — the Archaeological Survey of India under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture — has been found desperately wanting. A large part of such a situation is because of plain old apathy. But there is also a ‘dog in the manger’ mentality which has made the government resist outside help, whether private or foreign, down the years. While the matter of protecting our heritage from sheer callousness — like when a local minister hosted his daughter’s reception at a 13th century Rameshwar temple without any authorities bothering to act — lies in the hands of the ASI, conservation and restoration are issues that require the State to think beyond public vs private, national vs international expertise.
One is not saying that India’s monuments be handed over to private and foreign hands simply because the government has made some terrible errors of omission and commission. There have been instances where archival material has been copied and wheeled out of the country right under the nose of the government in the name of micro-film preservation, leading to possibilities of ‘copyright colonising’. Let the ASI be the nodal body and watchdog for all conservation and restoration work in the country. But let there be more public-private partnerships like the latest one in the capital. The bottomline is that India’s monuments should be taken care of. Who does the ‘taking care’ is secondary.