March 07, 2015

OUR HERITAGE, OUR PRIDE

JAITLEY'S FUNDS TO PROTECT OUR MONUMENTS IS A WELCOME MOVE

In December 2013, I visited Strasbourg while on a business trip to Germany. Located in the Alsace region of France, it is the seat of the European Parliament and is renowned for its 15th century cathedral built in classical Gothic style. After getting down at the gare (railway station), we asked some locals directions to the cathedral. Since most of them only spoke French, possibly due to the hatred of their 'friends' across the English Channel and their language, they directed us to the Tourist Information Center next to the main entrance to the railway station. As we entered the place, we were greeted by a graceful lady who spoke English with a heavy French accent; she gave us a map with all the six metro routes that criss-cross the island town and also helped us with the way to the cathedral. In fact, at every other place we visited during our short trip, be it Heidelberg or Basel, I was extremely happy to notice that there were offices and bureaus to help visitors. More importantly, the monuments and heritage buildings that dotted these cities were maintained properly; those which had worn out due to wars or various forces of nature were duly restored to their former glory. As someone who loves history, it was indeed a pleasure to walk past buildings and streets that had not changed much for decades, or in some cases, even centuries.

Back home though, the situation seems to be diametrically opposite. We as Indians are inheritors of a rich history spanning across several millennia, unlike most other nations in the West. Besides, we must consider ourselves lucky that in spite of being overrun by invading armies so many times in the past, we still have lakhs of monuments spread across various parts of the country. The national capital itself has more than 1,500 monuments of historical importance as per the ASI. However, the problem is that we do not know how to take care of these 'jewels' from our history. Just a fraction of these have been protected and promoted as tourist destinations. Most of our monuments are in a dilapidated state, some are used as dump yards, some have been encroached upon whereas others have become the addas of all sorts of anti-social activities.

Last week as I was listening to the Budget Speech by Finance Minister, I was pleasantly surprised when Arun Jaitley announced funds for 'landscape restoration, signage and interpretation centres, parking, access for the differently-abled, visitor's amenities, including securities and toilets, illumination and plans for benefiting communities' for 10 out of the 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the country. I mean, for a nation that has never cared for its history, setting aside money for the protection of our legacy and heritage is something completely unheard of, isn't it? Of course there are cynics who will point out that the government's initiative is too little and there is a greater need to protect those monuments that are outside the gambit of the UNESCO programme. However, the move shows that the government's intentions are at least noble. At a time when budgets have been reduced to exercises used to score political brownie points or win important regional allies, Modi sarkaar has shown that it is ready to focus on areas like heritage that generally don't win you votes in our country. While the Central government has shown its intentions, the big question is whether the ordinary Indian follow. That would ultimately decide the fate of our priceless historical heritage.