Let’s Save Our Heritage: an audacious proposal

In a recent conversation with a fellow archaeologist, we ended up talking about the poor state of built heritage in our country. The conversation ended, as it always does, with two seemingly insurmountable impediments, and quite a few long sighs. These insurmountable problems are that of us having more “heritage” than we can possibly handle, and an acute lack of expertise in the field. In many such previous discussions with many others, I was repeatedly educated about the predicament of the university archaeology departments as the number of applicants is in a freefall, which is a global crisis. I am told that archaeology and heritage studies are not the first choice subjects for the bright students and quite a few of those who eventually ended up studying the subject, did not want to do it in the first place, leading to a draining of interest and dropouts. This invariably leads to a skill shortage that archaeology can ill-afford, which, in turn, results in the poor state of built heritage in our country.

I received all of my archaeology training abroad, and therefore, I cannot really comment on the state of archaeology education in the country. Nevertheless, I would like to dissect these long-standing “allegations” against the possibilities of archaeology and the future of our tangible and intangible heritage and conjure up a way to save our heritage! Audacious? So be it!

Inside a crumbling colonial building in central Kolkata

Let me start with the first “allegation”: India’s problem of having too much heritage (or archaeology). At one level, this is indeed true. With our very rich and diverse history, the number of historic sites in the country is staggering, and can easily overwhelm. However, the main issue with having too much of heritage is not with the number of heritage. The problem lay with the lack of archaeologists, conservationists and other heritage professionals in the country, the second “allegation”. This skill shortage is primarily caused by the lack of interest in a career in archaeology, conservation, and heritage management, the third “allegation”.

However, the real problem that sets this domino effect in motion, is the very real and acute lack of jobs in the field. Archaeology as a career is attractive to many teenagers (myself included) who are mesmerized by the scenes of Dr Zahi Hawass excavating a 5000-year-old mummy or the televised mysteries of the Stonehenge (etc.). Move forward a few years, archaeology makes a premature exit from their lives once the uncertainty of an archaeological career dawns upon them. It is indeed true that archaeology as a career in our country cannot offer much for its aficionados. If you fight the fight and are lucky, you can get placed in one of the very few archaeology departments in the universities, get hired by the Archaeological Survey of India, State Archaeology Departments, and museums. If you are not, then you have to either eke out a living in temporary positions moving from project to project or completely abandon archaeology for any other, more stable and lucrative career. Archaeology, in other words, has failed to provide its aficionados with a viable career choice to live with dignity.

A medieval folly in ruins near West Bengal-Jharkhand border

Okay, hold on! Didn’t you say that you had a plan? 

Yes, I did, and it is something that I believe can serve both heritage and its practitioners in India. I propose that we take a slightly different approach to our “problem” of too much heritage, as compared to too few heritage professionals. Maybe the “problem” of too much heritage is not a problem in the first place.  Not if one inserts “communities” in this discussion. Historic spaces and traditional practices do not stand in isolation. They are situated within and defined by the communities who live around them or practice them. Traditional archaeology and heritage management practices do not normally include these communities in the planning, maintenance, and conservation process. It is believed that communities are often disinterested and most certainly lack the required skill set and training to contribute meaningfully in the conservation process. A top-down approach, therefore, alienates the local communities, who often detach themselves from the historic spaces, leading to the lack of post-conservation upkeep and adaptive reuse of the space.

What if we could do archaeology and conservation a little differently? What if we included the communities in each stage of research, conservation, and reuse so that they take an active interest in their local historic spaces? What if we, the experts can make our unique skill-sets accessible to these communities by providing them training? I know this all sounds like something that an NGO would do. While some organizations are already doing this, what if we can make this community focused approach a government policy for archaeology and conservation?

An 18th-century terracotta temple complex at a small village in Birbhum. Despite the presence of local knowledge about the original raw materials used to build the temples, the conservation effort used supplements that caused outrage in the village. The community felt alienated by the conservation efforts.

Okay, understood, but how will this help create jobs?

To make a community focussed approach effective and successful, the state governments can consider instituting a Community Heritage Liaison in each state. This office staffed by archaeologists and heritage professionals will be in-charge of implementing the community focused heritage management policies in each state. As subsidiary bodies, each district can have a Community Liaison Office. The Community Liaison Officer and other staff of these offices will work closely with the local communities in the villages and towns of this district to record the tangible and intangible heritage and come up with conservation and adaptive reuse plans where necessary. The Community Liaison Office will also provide the communities with basic training to help during the conservation effort and post-conservation reuse and care of the structure. Instead of having a handful of archaeologists, and NGOs with their limited means and technical support, running around the states to conserve historic spaces, this decentralization in form of district based Community Liaison Offices will ensure faster, and more efficient recording and conservation of heritage.

This will also exponentially increase the number of jobs available throughout the country for archaeology and heritage professionals, with a potential to increase quality students in these disciplines. Such an increase in demand may also see more universities willing to start professional courses in archaeology and heritage management, increase the number of academic and research jobs available in the country, eventually addressing the alleged skill shortage.

Okay, so the experts will get jobs, what about the communities? What is there in it for them? 

This is very important and needs to be addressed in a thoughtful way. It is highly probable in a country like India that those community members without an easy access to the basic amenities of life would be less willing to participate in the process of conservation and maintenance. A historic site would have to be made relevant both financially, and otherwise for these communities. The training they receive from the Community Liaison Officers would have to be made relevant so that these can be used beyond the conservation efforts to earn a livelihood. It is also important that the Liaison Officers work closely with the communities to come up with a post-conservation adaptive reuse plan, which can help generate revenues and livelihood for those who participated in the conservation process.

I wrote this piece knowing very well that these suggestions would most likely fall on deaf ears. It is also highly probable that I would be accused of having a fit of fancy. So be it! My intention here is to at least start a discussion to change the status quo. If this post succeeds in doing that, I will consider it a success. I do not claim to know everything, nor do I claim that this way is full proof and the only way. But let’s start talking about it, and let’s work together to create a better future for our heritage and our heritage professionals in India.

About the author: Tathagata Neogi is the founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta. He has an MA and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Exeter. 


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