A recent report to the above effect had those concerned with this historic precinct rubbing their eyes in disbelief. For those not in the know it said that a conglomerate that had “interests in cement, power and sugar” had offered to take over the maintenance of the place under the “Adopt a Heritage” (sic) programme of the Central Government. Given the business areas in which the group is said to be, it appears that this is the same entity that has been awarded the maintenance of the Red Fort in Delhi, at a throwaway price. That decision raised quite a ruckus, but Chennai being far away from the national capital and with but tepid local interest in the welfare of the fort here, it would appear that the business group is more or less assured of getting the contract. That is if the local Government does not object. This however seems unlikely at present. There is of course much to be said both in favour of, and against, the idea.
Let us look at the positives first. The fort as it stands today is pretty much in a shambles. Large sections of it are in a state of collapse including the King’s Barracks, Wellesley House, Last House on Snob’s Alley and Clive’s Library. Those that are standing are in an appalling state of maintenance and that includes the Assembly and Secretariat Building. The sole exceptions are Clive’s House (now the office of the ASI), the Exchange Museum and the Church of St. Mary’s. A contract to a private business house may ensure much needed funds and a drive to restore the structures. Also, even in terms of general cleanliness, in which aspect the Government has repeatedly come a cropper, such a private agency may prove a better performer.
The negatives are however formidable. Firstly, how will a private contractor negotiate the minefield of multiple ownership of the Fort? Unlike the Red Fort, FSG has claims on it by the Legislative Assembly, the Government of Tamil Nadu, the Army, the Navy and the Archaeological Survey of India. This is one of the chief reasons for its being in such a poor shape. None of these agencies can agree on what needs to be done. How can a private party surmount this problem? And will its voice be heard?
Secondly, in what way is such a contractor qualified to carry out specialised maintenance, conservation and restoration? In case such a need arises, and there is certainly plenty of it at FSG, how will such a party go about it? Does this Adopt a Heritage scheme even envisage situations like that or does it expect the contract awardee to simply carry out routine cleaning and beautification (by way of gardens and a potted plant or two)? In the event of such restoration, will the contractor fund restoration by the ASI or will it resort to agencies that it has? And will the latter be qualified to take on such tasks? These are some of the questions that remain unanswered.
There is an even larger question – has the Government given up on its ever gearing up for maintaining historic precincts in its possession? And rather than simply farming out such maintenance, why can it not make the ASI the channel for private funds and use the money so received to strengthen that body? In the long term, the latter may be the best option, for a strong and revitalised ASI can become a specialist body to take on restoration across the entire country and not just as FSG or the Red Fort.
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