Karnataka government recently announced a Rs 111-crore project dedicated to Bengaluru’s founding father Kempe Gowda. The project included Rs 70 crores for a statue of the 16th-century chieftain at the Kempegowda International Airport, and Rs 41 crores for the ‘beautification’ of his tomb that was recently discovered in Magadi. The project understandably came under fire given that we are among the states hit worst by COVID-19.
But the argument presented by the powers-to-be in the public domain was that the project was meant to protect and project an important cog of Karnataka’s heritage and culture. As a heritage enthusiast, I know a lot of people who would applaud this move by the government to preserve our history. Till you start to look deeper.
Let’s start with one of the main custodians of history and heritage in Karnataka – the State Archaeological Department. They are the oldest Archaeological Department in India, set up in the 1800s by B L Rice. The department is charged with the protection and maintenance of 844 notified monuments, 14 museums and two galleries in the State. They are the ‘custodians’ authorised to notify structures like the four original towers built by Kempe Gowda in Bengaluru. That is, BBMP and the Horticulture Department, who now maintain the four towers, still need their permission to make any structural change.
According to a senior officer in the Archaeological Department, there are about 25,000 other historically-significant monuments in the state which are not notified due to lack of funding! (We will get to that in a minute.) The department is also expected to conduct seminars, have excavations, build heritage societies in schools and colleges to encourage young minds. They have to pay salaries for a sanctioned staff strength of 227 people (the current strength is only 97).
And they have to do all of this within an annual budget of about Rs 25 crore, says that senior officer, on condition of anonymity. He laments, “We have an operational cost of about Rs 10 crore for salaries. The rest of it is utilised for maintaining the notified monuments. If you do the math, that is about Rs one lakh (per annum) for each of the monuments under us. How do you expect us to manage?”
Notified heritage structures ill-maintained
Given that department maintains 14 museums and two galleries – one in Bengaluru and the other in Mysuru – ticket sales at these places should help with maintenance costs. But one visit to the Bangalore Museum or the Venkatappa Art Gallery tells us an abysmal tale of poor maintenance, with lack of basic hygiene even in washrooms. The officer says, “That is because we have to send the money from ticket sales to the treasury. We aren’t allowed to keep it. To put it bluntly, we don’t have the money to even afford a watchman for all of our notified monuments. In fact a number of our staff have not been paid in a couple of months.”
Venkatesh T, Commissioner, State Archaeological Department, admits that budget constraints are a problem in the upkeep of the premises. However, he denies that the staff had not been paid their salaries. “Some of the outsourced staff may have had a problem in the last two months because there was change in the payment amid the COVID pandemic. But otherwise we have no issues,” he says.
Maintaining a historical monument isn’t cheap. Often private players have stepped into help. The Infosys Foundation entirely funded the maintenance and restoration of Melkote Fort that was made famous by Mani Ratnam in many of his movies. The Dharamstala Rashtrotthana Trust is another private player that has worked with the department in helping restore history.
Venkatesh says, “We enter into an MOU, a PPP understanding, where the government funds about 40% of the project cost, the private players fund about 40% and the rest is raised from the public. But Infosys Foundation completely funded the Melkote Project and we gave the guidelines. In Bengaluru, we are responsible for the notification of monuments. But like in the case of the Kempe Gowda Towers which fall under the BBMP and the Horticulture Department, they spend on it. In case of the Kadumalleshwara Temple in Malleshwaram and the Gavigandhareshwara Temple in Gandhi Bazaar, the Muzrai department steps in with the costs. We help with the technical expertise if they ask us.” say Venkatesh.
But it isn’t just budget constraints facing the department. Given the nature of their job, conservation architects and specialists are needed. But the department faces shortage in this aspect too.
Lack of conservation architects, specialists
Most of the department’s engineers are brought in on deputation from the PWD department. One example of PWD’s understanding about conservation can be seen at the Bangalore Fort High School, a century-old school whose restoration went south after PWD engineers used glazed tiles to renovate it. It was finally saved after the non-profit INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) stepped in with private funding and technical expertise.
Venkatesh defends their approach, “The engineers brought in from other departments have to go through an orientation programme before taking charge so that they understand the work done here.” But why are there no in-house experts? “We have four posts for AEEs (Assistant Executive Engineers) in the department [for the entire state] who are experts in their fields and are largely responsible for directing the restoration work,” he said. These four AEEs oversee restoration work done by engineers brought in from other departments. Currently, two of those posts are vacant, and the two serving are due for retirement in the next two years.
Though the pandemic has taken over our lives in a manner that is unfamiliar to us, understandably, not all of the state business can be redirected at it. It, however, has to be reprioritised. Given the spending capability of our powers-to-be versus where funds ought to be spent, there seems to be a clear disconnect.
Rs 111 crore for a statue and beautification of a tomb (that some historians claim is not that of Kempe Gowda’s but that of his grandson) cannot be explained as heritage preservation. Especially when the lack of budget for those who have been doing it for years is glaringly evident.