India/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.2 Heritage issues and policies

Tangible heritage

Monuments: India’s understanding of cultural heritage management is largely state-led with little or no cultural heritage policy or legal provisions that help assert the rights of local communities in the management of heritage. The absence of a regulatory framework acts as a deterrent in the participation of both the public and the private sector. Legal provisions only address the issue of the acquiring and designating areas as ‘protected’ by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). A vast amount of cultural heritage lies outside of state control limiting the reach of the ASI. Only sites that are designated as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO have some form of a conservation and site management plan (as mandated under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 1972) with constant monitoring by the World Heritage Committee. There is also an excessive emphasis on built heritage, with natural heritage and other forms of cultural heritage, such as local festivals, not receiving adequate attention.

The conservation ideologies of the ASI are still based on the Conservation Guidelines that were originally adopted by John Marshall, founding Director General of ASI, in 1924. These guidelines, for example, advocate against the full restoration of ancient monuments and historical buildings. The same ideology is also reflected in the UNESCO’s Venice Charter in 1964. Many of these ideologies are increasingly being questioned by conservationists and historians as being outdated and as not reflecting contemporary approaches to conservation.

In contrast, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has been advocating for a fundamental re-thinking of the colonial conservation practices in India (see full INTACH Charter[1], and see Section 3.4.4 for more on INTACH) and for evolving new strategies that could, they say, help conserve both historical buildings and historical ways of building. They argue that the current conservation ideology is against the traditional building practices of India that allow rebuilding, and they also cite subsequent UNESCO charters which offer  a more culturally evolved approach, such as the Nara Document on Authenticity, 1994,[2] that permits rebuilding. Apart from providing new insights into history, the INTACH Charter claims that such an exercise will also lead to the developing of the science of building forensics, a neglected area in India. INTACH has suggested full restoration of some lesser known monuments in Delhi under the control of the ASI such as the Jahaz Mahal and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace, arguing that such an exercise will help promote tourism in both these sites that are currently in ruins and attract few visitors[3].

Apart from INTACH, other initiatives have also proposed changes to traditional wisdom. The Ministry of Urban Development has, in its Model Building Bylaws,[4] proposed radical changes to Municipal Bylaws that deal with the conservation of heritage in urban areas, but many states are yet to fully adopt many of these measures. (See Section 5.3.5). Other initiatives such as the Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development Task force (ABIDe), a think tank of the Karnataka Government in its Heritage Plan 2020,[5] has proposed among other things the setting of conservation agency for the city of Bangalore, a heritage register apart from suggesting strategies which gives due consideration to private and public heritage.

The ASI recently released a draft of the National Conservation Policy[6] in May 2013 for public discussion. This is the first attempt by the ASI to relook at its conservation guidelines for monuments, archaeological sites and remains, under its protection, since its establishment. Some of the criticisms include the draft’s exclusive focus on ASI monuments while completely ignoring other heritage controlled by state archaeology departments, private persons, etc. It also does not have provisions to widen the scope of public-private partnerships to go beyond the setting up of tourist infrastructure. 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: In 2011, the Advisory Committee on World Heritage Matters (ACWHM) was established by the Ministry of Culture, with the following terms and conditions (in brief):

  • To review the Tentative List of Heritage Sites of India on UNESCO List and make recommendations for suitable addition/deletion (to make the list more representative of sites suitable for inscription.
  • To recommend heritage Sites for nomination for inscription on World Heritage List, taking into account both the universal outstanding value of the site and the quality of nomination dossier.
  • To review the existing Site Management Plan (SMP) and to give suitable recommendations for implementation of existing SMPs and development of SMPs for other Sites where none exist.

The Advisory Committee would comprise experts and consultants who have prepared ‘winning’ nomination dossiers or high quality Site Management Plans (SMPs).

Examples of Community Management of Heritage: The Gobindgarh Fort project[7] in Amritsar, a public-private partnership, has sought to create an effective framework for the sustainable conservation and revitalisation of Gobindgarh Fort in the absence of a cultural heritage policy. The Gobindgarh Cultural Heritage Management Authority constituted by the Punjab government was to identify both public and private sector partners to create socio-economic infrastructure within the fort to make it a vibrant public space. The partners would be offered various concessions, including long-term rights and the use of physical properties of the fort and the lands abutting it as a means of revenue generation.

Another example is that of Begumpur Mosque. Various community initiatives such as the Friends of ASI (FrASI) consisting of activist historians, heritage enthusiasts, conservation architects along with students from local schools have been involved in creating awareness and involved in conservation activities[8]. The FrASI is working with the residents of Begumpur village to try out new community-led conservation practices around the 17th century Begumpur Mosque in Delhi.

Monuments and Tourism: A key contradiction basic to India’s heritage policies has been the historical assumption that tourism destroys heritage. This issue has become current with the Supreme Court of India banning tourism in tiger reserves, prompting two of India’s leading tiger experts, K. Sankar and Prof. Qamar Qureshi of the Wildlife Institute of India, to propose – while studying both tourism and no-go tourism zones of the Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, along with its buffer zones spread across Seoni and Chhindwara districts – that there is no significant difference in tiger densities in tourism and non-tourism zones. In the instances of heritage buildings, especially places of worship, the claim has further been made that heritage buildings that are actually used as places of worship are, in fact, better preserved than those where such worship is banned. We provide one illustration representative of the problem: the issues in recent years concerning the Taj Mahal, avowedly India’s best known heritage building. For a second instance, the illegal evictions of Hampi bazaar. (see the March 2012 report by the NGO Equations).[9]

Corporate participation issues: (A) The Taj Corridor Case: Between 2002-03, the Taj Heritage Corridor case hit the headlines, as Nasimuddin Siddiqui, a minister in the Government of Uttar Pradesh under Chief minister Mayawati, was charged with corruption. The project was intended to upgrade tourist facilities around the Taj, and was given Environmental Clearance by the then-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government in the Centre for a cost of INR 175 crore (approx.USD 35 million). Following major allegations of embezzlement, the project was effectively made defunct, and plans are being made to remove the partial construction near the Taj Mahal site and replace it with a low tech forested greenbelt. The High Court of Allahabad has ruled in favour of a Rs. 45–50 crore (approx. USD 9-10 million) project, but exactly who will foot the ASI bill remains unclear.

The Taj Mahal: Conundrums for Tourism: As per data published by the Indian Tour Operators Promotion Council, in 2007, the number of international tourists hit a number of nearly 5 million, nearly twice the number in 2001. It is estimated that the Taj Mahal itself takes in 1.4 million tourists a year. The Taj Mahal is now a listed World Heritage monument, and the Archaeological Survey of India has to mandatorily provide a ‘Periodic Reporting Exercise on the Application of the World Heritage Convention’. In its 2002 report, the ASI testified that they have replaced decayed stone pieces, paved the forecourt concrete, installed ribbed metal walkway low bridges around the central tank and added a coir matting walkway in the summer to prevent burns to feet due to the hot marble surface, and provided barricades along water channels to keep the crowd from spoiling water, all the while taking care that all such measures ‘preserved and protected the monument without disturbing its originality’.

Environmental issues and transportation: the rickshaw puller: In 1998, the Ministry Of Environment and Forests constituted a new authority, known as the Taj Trapezium Zone Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, to monitor progress of the implementation of various schemes for protection of both the Taj Mahal and the environment. These included, among other things, steps to ‘ensure compliance of specified emission-standards motor vehicles and ensuring compliance of fuel quality standards’. One issue that now arises came to be known as the ‘Cycle Rickshaw Case’.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a New York based organisation that stresses non-motorised environmentally sound transportation, initiated what has come to be known as The Taj Mahal Cycle Taxi Improvement Project at the request of the Municipality of Agra. According to ITDP, Agra produces between 30,000 and 50,000 cycle rickshaws per year, and in all, the total number of jobs created by the provision of cycle rickshaw service in Agra could range from 30,000 to 90,000 people. Further, ITDP estimated that an average rickshaw driver logs around 24,500 km per year, and stated that, ‘if these trips were changed into trips by highly polluting two stroke IC engine, the annual emission impact would be roughly an additional 11 metric tons of lead in Agra’s atmosphere, 4,000 tons of particulate, 20,000 metric tons of CO, and 150 tons of NOx’. On the other hand, the cycle rickshaw has been banned in New Delhi and faces the prospect of similar bans in other Indian cities as tourists are uncomfortable with the idea of riding in a vehicle of questionable safety and comfort and one in which the driver has to physically struggle to walk the bicycle uphill or over embankments, as is the case at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The project sought not to import the bikes into Agra but rather to enable the local community to manufacture and produce the bikes with technical assistance. This policy could lead, it was claimed, to higher end production jobs in Agra. The new cycle rickshaw was to work with a multi-speed gear system which reduces strain on the rickshaw driver. The weight of the vehicle is lighter and evenly distributed, which makes it easier to pedal and steer, and the long chassis offers stability and prevents toppling. For the passenger, there are comfortable seats and backrests which absorb shocks and offer more comfortable rides. In addition, the permanent hood offers protection against sun and rain, and there is plenty of luggage space under the seats.[10]

Intangible heritage

Traditional knowledge:

India’s National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has outlined the field as follows:

  • (Traditional knowledge) should include plant-based drug formulations of which we have over 40,000 that have come to us through the Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, Tibetan (all documented) and the non-documented tribal systems of medicine.
  • Traditional agricultural practices of which 4502 have been documented by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in a series of volumes, with 86 having been validated and 38 cross-validated till December 2005.
  • Culinary traditions which use some 150 documented vegetables for which nutritional and other information is available, and an equal number of fruits.
  • Culture-specific tourism, for example, through identification of tribal art centres, promoting authentic local performing arts, and making use of the unusual sites and practices that we have in our country.
  • Traditional water harvesting practices which have been well-documented, for example in a book brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.
  • Traditional products, services and art forms that are not included above.

The NKC claims that principled commercialisation of our cultural, creative and legacy practices has the potential of generating employment for at least 100 million people and an annual revenue of at least INR 600,000 crores (USD 120,000 million) per year.[11]

This issue further splits into two further areas: (1) the question of who maintains control over traditional knowledge and (2) how traditional knowledge can be exploited as economic benefit to the country.

Traditional knowledge, bio-piracy and patent wars: Warning the world against what it has called ‘Scientific and Technological Colonialism’, India has offered to help all developing countries in protecting their wealth of traditional knowledge with patents so that they are not exploited by the West. Defining bio-piracy as the use of intellectual property systems to legitimise the exclusive ownership and control over biological resources and biological products and processes that have been used over centuries in non-industrialised culture, India claims that it would have to fight for patents claimed by other countries, as in the case of haldi (turmeric), Neem and Basmati. Creation of a Traditional Knowledge Data Library (TKDL), which targets Ayurveda in the first phase, would, it is claimed, go a long way in this goal.

The problem India has faced is that U.S. courts require adequate evidence in the form of printed and published informationthat traditional use of turmeric is widely known before the patent has been claimed. In the instance of turmeric, which is claimed to be a success story, and although medicinal use of turmeric is ubiquitous in India, it had a hard time finding the necessary references, which it finally did, and which allowed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke this patent. Similar concerns have arisen in instances of several medicinal plants.

On the other hand, with basmati rice, the Government of India was able to challenge only three of the 20 claims granted to the patent holder, Ricetec, since it could provide evidence on record only to challenge these. Unlike turmeric whose use is widespread, it was claimed that knowledge of basmati is often restricted to specific communities.

Currently, the problem faced by many developing countries is that there is no requirement under patent laws of most countries for the holder of the patent, or of any intellectual property rights, to share the benefits with those who had collected, preserved or initially identified the biological material as potentially worthy of investigation. India and other developing countries have emphasised to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) the need to recognise the rights of holders of traditional knowledge to share benefits arising out of innovation on the basis of their knowledge, and the biological resources nurtured by them. They have also recommended that applications for patents should mandatorily disclose the source of origin of the biological resource and knowledge pertaining to it, so as to facilitate benefit sharing with the originators of the knowledge and resource. The United States has strongly opposed this as a ‘legal and administrative nightmare’. This stand, according to Divya Bhargava, by the U.S. would only lead to greater misappropriation of biological resources and knowledge.[12]

Traditional knowledge and issues of digitisation: As is well known, a landmark in global efforts to protect traditional knowledge and cultural productions has been UNESCO’s adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (CSICH) in 2003, for ‘identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalisation of the various aspects of such heritage.’ CSICH happened in the context of UNESCO’s efforts to promote global information democracy, while validating the right of nations to defend their cultures against unwanted external influence, and the most controversial measure under consideration has been the UNESCO Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.  

Although CSICH has inspired a handful of national campaigns to use electronic resources to combat the loss of local traditions, and India has announced plans to ‘carry out extensive documentation of intangible heritage to provide the preservation of each expression of heritage by making exhaustive inventories and storing them electronically for the future’, Brown (2005) says that there is ‘reason to doubt that such technocratic and top-down approaches to heritage protection have much to offer’. This is, he says, partly because of unthinking overuse of digital resources which are themselves often fragile and susceptible to loss, but also because ‘the Internet and other intrusions of the Information Society have pushed many native peoples toward greater secrecy’. To him, the notion that ‘knowledge must be recorded by outsiders in order to save it from loss is impossible to reconcile with the inward-looking, protective turn now observed in many indigenous communities’. This shift in the direction of secrecy, he says, drives indigenous demands for the ‘repatriation of information’ — that is, the return (and, in rare cases, the destruction) of ethnographic texts and images that communities wish to see removed from the public domain on the grounds that the knowledge documented in these materials should never have been public in the first place’.

The specific instance of traditional medical knowledge (TMK): Among the key new industries to have emerged from traditional knowledge is the medical industry, concentrated primarily around Ayurveda, claimed by some sources as an industry that is already valued at INR 50 billion and growing at a rate between 10-15 % annually.[13] In 1970, the Indian Medical Central Council Act was passed, aimed at standardising qualifications and providing accreditation. In India, over 100 colleges offer degrees in traditional ayurvedic medicine. In order to fight biopiracy and unethical patents, the Government set up the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in 2001, as a repository of 1200 formulations of various systems including Unani and Siddha. However, Sita Reddy (2006) claims that redefining TMK as a proprietary resource ‘often ends up removing it from the public domain in an attempt to return it to its alleged creators’, even as the efforts to make TMK public often result in protecting it from globalisation. TKDL is, she says, a particularly instructive example of this paradox. Created to fend off foreign patents on what they define as a nation’s heritage, it bears the ‘simultaneous burden of proving that a proposed innovation has been part of the public domain for centuries, but do so by asserting ownership over it, which directly conflicts with their appeals to a universal public domain’. A second paradox of legibility that she points to is what legal scholars call the hyperownership of an increasingly contested biological commons: a ‘situation in which state-based systems of ownership push the boundaries of sovereignty so far in unleashing a spiral of enclosures that they risk creating new property claims, new subjects, and the possibility of an anticommons’.

Intangible heritage list with UNESCO: A representative list includes Buddhist chants in Ladakh (in 2012), Chhau dance, Kalbelia folk songs of Rajasthan, Mudiyettu in Kerala (in 2011) and   Kodiyettam, Ramlila and the tradition of Vedic chanting (in 2008).

The Parampara Project led by the Ministry of Culture and the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmadabad (supported by the Ministry of Environment and Forests), is a national networking and conservation initiative to safeguard India's Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). ICH includes ‘popular and traditional expression such as, oral literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, costumes and craftwork know-how. Intangible heritage also includes cultural spaces, where popular and traditional cultural activities take place in a concentrated manner (sites for story-telling, rituals, marketplaces, festivals, daily rituals, annual processions, regular performances, etc.). The cultural heritage, in this sense, is also linked to the professions and income generating activities such as agriculture, livestock rearing, forestry, fisheries, etc.[14]

The Parampara project aims to:

  • provide a platform to synergise efforts and showcase initiatives made by different agencies (groups, individuals and institutions) towards conservation of India’s ICH
  • exchange of knowledge, experience and best practices
  • to create a database based on new/past/conserved living traditions

[9] Equations, ‘Inhuman and Illegal Eviction and Demolition at Hampi Bazaar: A fact-finding report in August 2011’, March 2012 (

[10] Quoted from Sean Farrel, TED Case Studies, Number 668, 2002,

[12] This section summarizes the essay ‘Patent Act: Biopiracy Of Traditional Indian Products - An Overview’, by Divya Bhargava,14 May, 2009,


Chapter published: 22-04-2014