The Taj Mahal: an architectural masterpiece. The Red Fort: a symbol of India’s hard-fought independence. The Sunderbans National Park, a last stronghold for the majestic Bengal tiger.
These are just a handful of India’s national treasures now up for “adoption” by private and public sector companies or individuals under a controversial government program.
India’s Adopt a Heritage scheme has listed nearly 100 sites for adoption with the “adopters” expected to provide and maintain tourist amenities.
“India has, obviously, this magnificent built heritage… and at the moment the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is in charge of it, simply doesn’t have the resources to look after them,” said historian and author William Dalrymple, who has lived in India for about 30 years.
Fears over branding, endangered species
Historians, architects, conservationists and locals have questioned whether corporations are the best choice to fix the problem, but the scheme is already in place.
The adoption of India’s Red Fort by cement and sugar company Dalmia Bharat group is the most recent monument hand over to come under fire.
One fear is that powerful corporations with political ties won’t face accountability and will act unopposed.
“The hope is that if people have protested loudly about this, there will be strong supervision of what goes on,” said Mr Dalrymple.
“It isn’t just going to be a case of the most precious monuments in the country [being] opened for rock concerts and corporate shindigs, which may leave them damaged and irreparably harmed.”
The government has said the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) will supervise the scheme and adopters won’t do restorations.
But adopters will be able to use the sites for advertising.
“If somebody spends the money, why shouldn’t he get a branding?” India’s tourism minister Alphons Kannanthanam told online news outlet Quartz.
“But that branding obviously will not be like putting up huge hoardings.”
Also on the adoption list are heritage listed national parks which are home to various endangered and vulnerable species.
Among them is the Sunderbans National Park in West Bengal, a last remaining stronghold for the Bengal Tiger, which is endangered in India due largely to poaching and habitat loss.
“Sunderbans is such a unique eco-system, it’s the only mangrove forest in the world that has tigers and it is a very fragile landscape … very susceptible to climate change,” says conservationist and author Prerna Singh Bindra.
The tiger is endangered in India due largely to poaching and habitat loss. (Getty: Alex Turton)
The conservationist fears corporations will undermine protection efforts if they aren’t focused on or experienced in conservation, and because there is a lack of accountability.
“The ultimate goal of that natural heritage site, of that national park, is conservation not branding,” Ms Bindra says.
“Because these are our last remaining… habitats of endangered species.”
She also says there was no consultation with relevant stakeholders like locals, conservationists, historians, scientists and relevant government officials like park authorities.
‘Monuments are rotting’
But amid the concerns, a question remains: how will India fix many of its neglected and dilapidated heritage sites?
Even the most famous among them are facing decay, like the world-renowned Taj Mahal.
The 17th century white marble mausoleum, on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, is experiencing discoloration and an algae and insect problem, according to local media.
“There is a huge distance to go before India protects its heritage,” says Mr Dalrymple.
He says the simple solution is for the Indian government to funnel more money into preserving its heritage.
“India, which has an unrivalled richness of extraordinary monuments and things to see, at the moment actually attracts less tourists than Singapore,” he says.
“Monuments are rotting, people don’t go to them.”