The World Heritage Week, which comes to a close today, provides an excellent occasion to introspect and reconsider our approach towards the preservation of a rich heritage that our forefathers, and nature, have bequeathed. For over one and a half centuries, the state has undertaken this task with a varying degree of success and failure. But it is now time for a mature nation to consider a broader framework of citizen-government partnership, as this heritage belongs to the entire nation and not only to its present custodians.
Let us look at our record so far. We have 32 sites, 25 of which are historic or “cultural”, on Unesco’s world heritage list, and only five countries are ahead of us — Italy, China, Spain, Germany and France. This is mainly because they were busy filing nominations in the 1970s, when the argumentative Indian and the Archaeological Survey of India were looking elsewhere. By the time we realised the importance of being on the list, the “drop gate” had come down and Unesco had restricted nominations from each country to only two per year, irrespective of its size, history or geography. But we do not seem to have succeeded even in this limited task, as the ASI could not submit even a single nomination to Unesco for several years. This “scandal” was hardly noticed either by the nation or successive directors general of the ASI, or even by culture secretaries and ministers.
When we finally got our act together, we managed to place 12 fresh sites on the tentative list that precedes the final scrutiny and listing in just four years, between 2009 and 2012, against only 12 claims listed in the preceding four decades. A part of this sudden burst of energy was owed to an advisory committee set up within the culture ministry comprising private experts, though the ASI did not seem pleased to have to give up its monopoly. Within the next two years, India filed 22 more applications, and we now have a wider choice of 50 “properties” on the tentative list from which we can select our final nominations to receive the world heritage tag. It saves us from the last-minute tension of filing dossiers on the closing day and substantiates the view that wider participation can help improve performance.
We have an inherent responsibility to protect and preserve what god has endowed us with, in the form of unique natural landscapes, seven of which find mention as “natural sites”. If one goes over the dates, one can clearly see how there were occasional bursts of energy in the ministry of environment in 1985-88 and then again in the 2010s. There are mysterious black patches when no effort was continued…