“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” said the first Prime Minister of India. Will the current government make a trust with private companies instead?
The historic speech about the “tryst with destiny” was given by Jawaharlal Nehru in August 1947, just hours before India declared its independence. As these words were spoken from Delhi’s Red Fort, a historic fortress built by the Mughal dynasty, it has been a tradition for every prime minister of India to give a speech from the Red Fort during the Independence Day celebrations on August 15. Now, however, the management of a part of the fort has been given to a private company, the Dalmia Bharat Group. This is not supposed to affect the routine of annual speeches, but still the question arises: should a prime minister of India be speaking on country affairs during the Independence Day from a national monument maintained by a private company?
Dalmia Bharat will take over management of the fort as a result of the current government’s Adopt a Heritage project. Under this scheme, a number of famous Indian monuments will be taken care of by private companies which are being selected in a process similar to an open bidding. The Adopt a Heritage project website announced that it initially picked 93 heritage site for “adoption” and the number grown since then.
So far, the decision to adopt four monuments – including the Red Fort – has been announced. A process of picking the winning companies in the rest of the cases is underway. The monuments the management and maintenance of which will be taken over by private firms include the great, deserted Mughal city Fatehpur Sikri, the beautiful Hindu temple of the god of Sun in Konark (Odisha), the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, the Qutub Complex in Delhi (which includes the ruins of a mosque) and yes, the Taj Mahal.
The Adopt a Heritage project is a yet another example of growing public-private partnerships in India. It fits well with the current government’s cooperation with big industrial houses. Moreover, Prime Minister Modi’s government opened India to foreign direct investment in many sectors. As even 100 percent FDI in the defense sector was allowed – which means that theoretically a foreign private company can, for instance, establish a fighter jet factory in India – should it surprise us that a private Indian company will be able to manage a historical site?
But before sounding the alarm bells and risking being one-sided, let me point out to certain conditions. First, this is an experimental project and the management will be initially privatized for 5 years. Second, the companies will not own the monuments. The Dalmia Bharat cannot auction and sell the Red Fort, or turn it into an instant noodles factory. Third, the private companies will not be able to administer the heritage sites on their own; they will have to do this jointly with government institutions. The Dalmia Bharat Group will not even manage the whole of the fort (most of which is occupied by the Indian military).
The Adopt a Heritage program outlines concrete responsibilities for the private companies, such as creating new infrastructure, new amenities and new levels of cleanliness, maintaining the existing operations, making the monument more popular, and taking better care of tourists. But, yes, this lunch will not come free: the company will be “allowed to charge visitors for semi-commercial activities” (as Business Standard reports), and include its brand name on souvenirs sold within the monument and on banners at the site. Simply speaking: the firm will, among others, have a responsibility to better advertise the site but will also be able to advertise itself through the site.
Come to think of, it is perhaps good that the winning company was Dalmia Bharat and not the other bidders (like the IndiGo airline). Dalmia Bharat can perhaps advertise one of its products – cement – by referring to the Red Fort (“a cement as strong as the Red Fort”); I am not sure what reference would be possible in case of an airline.
The arguments for and against such projects are easily conceivable but important to mention. The heritage of a country is national. It should be available to everybody and should not represent the agenda or interests of a private company. Moreover, the heritage sites are being partially maintained from taxpayers’ money (but also by income from tickets). If the government is unable to maintain the sites properly and gives this responsibility to a private company, is it fair the government is still taking the taxpayers’ money? Moreover, many of the sites advertised for adoption are religious or of religious importance. Pushing them further into the consumption-ruled private market is questionable when compared to the moral values claimed by these religions. The conclusion that Buddha focused so much on struggling with human desire, and yet the Buddhist caves in Ajanta, a place when the pious had once lived a very modest life, will now be managed by a private company – which built its wealth on the consumers’ desire – leaves one with an awkward feeling.
On the other hand, the public maintenance of many historical sites in India, including the Taj Mahal, has been often criticized. Yes, it is a very challenging task: for instance, the level of pollution threatening the Taj Mahal and the millions of tourists trampling it every year are not issues which can be solved easily. Still, the defenders of privatization could say that the government institutions had their chance for management – and their work was sometimes far from satisfactory. Moreover, some of the most famous monuments in India (such as Humayun’s tomb in Delhi) had actually been substantially renovated thanks to the funds and assistance provided by the UNESCO.
The Adopt a Heritage project is aimed at not only adopting the monuments but also adapting them: adapting them to new times. While in reality maintenance is a core issue, the Adopt a Heritage documents clearly focus on the task of making site infrastructure more advanced in terms of contemporary tourism (for example, by establishing visitor centers and creating virtual visualizations of the sites). Private companies are usually more consumer-focused and up-to-date with technology than public institutions, and it would seem this is what the site need. The private firms are also often quicker to act and their activities are more cost-effective – otherwise, they fail.
Moreover, while the private-public divide is not artificial it is also not so clear-cut. Public institutions and private companies function jointly in a number of ways. They were not so clearly divided in the earlier periods, either. Religious codes may speak against desire and luxury, but what are the great mosques, temples, and churches if not the work completed thanks to material resources, funded by powerful kings and rich private donors alike? The tourism around the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort is already private anyway: the hotels, the restaurants, and the tour companies are mostly private. It is those firms that provide the ticket-buyers for those national sites and then the money from the tickets goes to government institutions. In a way, therefore, the government is dependent on the private companies anyway.
The scales are perhaps most tilted in the case of Taj Mahal. The price of a ticket for a foreign tourist is many times higher than for an Indian one. A thousand Indian rupees for foreigners is a staggering price when compared to the very modest price of 40 rupees charged for Indians and other South Asian citizens. This means that the government, in a way, subsidizes tickets for Indian tourists by charging exorbitant prices from most foreign tourists. It also probably means that the income from tickets purchased by foreigners is an important part of resources obtained for maintenance. Most of India’s other biggest monuments also charge more from foreign tourists and the arrival of those tourists is mostly managed by private companies.
Of course, the counterpoint is that the public sphere should provide a level playing field. That private companies are in a fierce contest in the tourism market outside the Taj Mahal is one thing – but the moment the tourists enter the mausoleum it should not matter which company they chose. If, for example, a company managing the Taj Mahal would establish (or happen to have) a hotel nearby the mausoleum and this would give those staying in the hotel some perks during the visit within the monument, than the competition would be unfair.
At the same time, however, aren’t the governments partial as well? If it is unfair that one brand will be prominently featured on the souvenirs in the Red Fort, is it fair that the Indian government closes the Taj Mahal for at least few hours to host a delegation from a foreign country? While it would be disgusting if the management of the private company would slightly change the historical narrative about a monument (for example, on plaques and in brochures available at the monument), doesn’t the government change the narrative about the historical sites as well to cater to their political needs? And don’t they choose which monuments should be taken care of over others?
On some level, it does not matter if it is private or public: they are good and bad managers and good and bad ideas. There are effective public companies and failed private enterprises. Though I do have serious doubts about the Adopt a Heritage project I would say that as long as it will not threaten the historical value of the monuments or become an abject advertisement of one company, we should it give it a chance.