In today’s Finshots, we discuss the potential economic impact of India’s missing heritage sites.

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The Story

Here’s a mystery — 50 of India’s 3,693 centrally protected monuments are missing!

At least that’s what the Ministry of Culture told the parliament in December. Heritage sites such as the Kos Minar in Haryana, the Barakhamba Cemetery in Delhi, the Ruins of the Copper Temple in Arunachal Pradesh, and the Gunner Burkill’s Tomb in Uttar Pradesh are nowhere to be found.

Now, you’re probably wondering “It’s a gigantic monument! Not a piece of candy that you’re looking for in the fridge. How the heck could it go missing?”

Well, let’s just say that we didn’t spend enough time looking after the monuments in the first place. We were careless.

And part of the blame lies in rapid urbanisation. See, India’s population has ballooned 4 times since independence — from 340 million to 1.3 billion. But the problem is that land is limited. We have to make do only with what we have. That meant building living spaces and constructing dams and reservoirs wherever we found the space. And oftentimes, we simply didn’t pay heed to these historical monuments. We razed them to the ground or submerged them. And the hidden pages of history got erased forever.

For instance, there’s Delhi’s Barakhamba cemetery. Once upon a time, it was a tomb that was named after the 12 pillars supporting its roof. But now it’s on the list of untraceable monuments.

And a few years ago, the folks at the Mumbai Mirror tried to do some digging. They found the Barakhamba Road. But there was no cemetery in the vicinity. Instead, there was a cemetery of sorts in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. And to their surprise, it has morphed into the Ghalib park with a dilapidated structure in the middle and a couple of graves. That’s it.

Where did the Barakhamba cemetery disappear, you ask?

Well, one theory comes from an archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). In 1914, he wrote that the building was used by a government official who was part of the team planning the city of New Delhi. In his own words, “It is being used as an office of an executive engineer of the third project division, and has been repaired, paved and whitewashed.” And over time, people squatted in the building and it just gave way to a park. All that remains in its memory is the road that’s named after it.

And this is just one instance, mind you. Imagine this happening to monuments across the country.

But this begs the question ― What is the economic impact of these missing monuments?

Look, monuments attract tourism. And as per the World Tourism Organization, culture and heritage motivate 40% of international tourism. Although there isn’t an exact figure we can peg on India’s cultural tourism, you can’t deny that our rich culture and heritage have a huge hand in attracting tourists.

So protecting these historic sites and ruins can pep up tourism revenue. For instance, according to a disclosure by the Ministry of Culture, India earned about ₹93 crores in FY16, ₹225 crores in FY17 and ₹269 crores in FY18 from entry fees.

But here’s the catch — we’re burning cash to look after our heritage sites. You see, during those same years, the ASI spent approximately 150%, 30% and 50% over and above its income to conserve, preserve and maintain our monuments.

On the face of it, it seems like it’s not an economically viable proposition. But remember that only 116 of these monuments were ticketed. India has 3,693 centrally protected monuments. And that means entry to 97% of them was free.

So maybe just increasing the number of ticketed sites could generate revenues to help in maintaining the free ones too. Or even innovative ideas like what was implemented at the iconic Taj Mahal. In December 2018, they introduce a separate entry fee of ₹200 just to see the main mausoleum which houses the graves of the Mughal royals. And the ASI netted an additional ₹17 crores.

And such fees from iconic monuments that subsidize the free ones might be imperative. Apparently, people’s taste in tourism is changing. Niche heritage sites are having their moment in the sun. For instance, the monuments in Mamallapuram, a town close to Chennai, received about 1,06,000 more foreign tourists than the iconic Taj Mahal in FY22.

So maybe if we preserve and promote our lesser known heritage sites, we could see a boom in cultural tourism. The folks offering public transport like autos and cabs could earn better. Hospitality and handicraft revenues could go up too. It’s a win-win for everyone. And we may not even have to weigh out the economic paradox of saving a monument versus forgetting its existence.

But for all this to truly work — we need to pay more attention to the ASI.

It needs more funds. Last year, it got a measly ₹1,080 crores for maintaining monuments. And a puny ₹3 crores in FY23 for monuments that weren’t under the central protection list. You can bet this money isn’t enough for upkeep.

The result? Only 7% of these centrally protected monuments have security personnel. And that’s a shame because it leads to vandalism, destruction, and eventual loss of heritage sites.

It also doesn’t have enough power to tackle illegal encroachment of heritage sites. Maybe tweaking the law can help make them a potent monument protection force too.

Because as the Article 49 of the Constitution of India makes abundantly clear:

It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, [declared by or under law made by Parliament] to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.

So yeah, hopefully, we’ll step up our game to protect these heritage sites and monuments. It might be in our economic interest to do so.

Until then…

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