The Young vs the State: Same old conflict around Heritage and its Conservation: It is time to include perspectives of young people in the Heritage Policy of India

Authors: Priya Gohad & Neha Ghatpande, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India

On June 11, 2021, the Maharashtra state government in India took the decision to build a ropeway on the Rajgad fort (a popular trekking destination and the first capital of the Maratha Empire established by seventeenth century king Shivaji) and Ekvira Temple (temple of a Hindu deity). Thousands of trekkers visit Rajgad fort every year, yet, this decision to build a ropeway on the fort was criticized by the groups of young trekkers, mountaineers and adventure enthusiasts. It was also challenged by environment activists and ecological experts based on its potential ecological impact on the fort.

This decision has triggered a lot of social media discussions among youth in Maharashtra and petitions were signed along with letters addressed to the tourism minister of the state. The reasons behind opposing the state’s plans are cited as overcrowding, the detrimental impact on the flora and fauna on the fort, possible damage to the heritage structures and the loss of its historical significance[i].

The government has sought to give several explanations to communicate their position on this conflict. One of the explanations is that the fort would become accessible to people of all age groups. One of the ministers in the government said, “those who are opposing it are young…we need to think about all people.” Despite the opposition, the state has decided to go ahead with their plans.

Image 1: View from Rajgad Fort

This conflict between the way the State approaches heritage sites and how the youth want their heritage to be treated and preserved has become a talking point. Another important part of the discussion has been the impact this project might have on the eligibility of Rajgad, and another 13 forts, to be marked as world heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The nomination has been filed by the same state government. Environmentalists and ecological experts have also expressed concerns because it is an ecologically sensitive area and is part of the Western Ghats, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This new debate has given rise to the same old conflict between how the state is looking at Heritage as the celebration of the past relics through the predominant lens of tourism and revenue generation. On the other hand, young people are more inclined to conserve and preserve the Heritage along with the History and ecology attached with it.

Image 2: Karla Cave Site

Interestingly, the issue of the ropeway at the fort triggered a lot of debates, but there seems to be hardly any opposition to the ropeway or funicular railway project at Ekvira temple located near the heritage site of Karla caves. The cave complex is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India and the temple is located in the remaining space. While the forts are recognised as important heritage symbols and have more of an emotional impact both in terms of history and ecology, the religious impact of the Ekvira temple seems to dominate the heritage value of the site of Karla. This is significantly seen in the silence among youths on the issue of constructing a ropeway in the cave complex as opposed to the movement against it at the fort site. Contested and diverse views are seen in terms of youth perspectives related to culture and heritage. Contestation between history and myth, heritage and religion dominates the minds of young people while recognising the significance of a heritage site.  This contestation of points of view definitely requires an inclusive policy intervention.

While conducting research under the CHIEF project, the findings highlighted a disconnect between the official discourses on heritage and the sensibilities of young people. State institutions influence the understanding of culture and heritage in the public domain but at the same time there is no set pattern in terms of administration and regulations regarding the heritage sites. This often leads to such controversial decisions on the part of the government without taking the public opinion in consideration. Lack of cultural policy, especially relevant to the interests and needs of the youth limits their interaction with heritage sites. Young people are assumed as passive receivers of culture in most of the official state documents, which affects their cultural participation.

The Government initiatives related to development of heritage sites needs to be appreciated as they contribute not only to the conservation of any site but also generate economic resources. Yet, it is debatable as to how we define heritage, the need to extend its scope and a strong legislative intervention to make it more inclusive. A strong legal framework in the form of a cultural policy will surely help in achieving certain goals to enhance cultural participation.

The vision of young people and experience of senior experts can be combined to frame new ideas of cultural engagement. Young people should be involved in the decision-making and recognised as agents of the continuous process of making and remaking of culture. Formation of a city level body to give advice on issues related to the reconstruction of heritage sites, upgrading them with modern amenities, issues of aesthetics and ecology will surely lead to better decision making. It is necessary to arrive at a common point for both, the state interventions in regards to heritage and perspectives of youth towards it.

 

About the Authors

Dr. Priya Gohad worked as Research Associate on the CHIEF Project at SPPU-India. She holds a PhD in Archaeology. Her research interests are Heritage Management, ancient Indian history, art, architecture, culture and archaeology.

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Neha Ghatpande worked as a Project Officer for CHIEF at Savitribai Phule Pune University (India). In her professional career, she has contributed to various newspapers and magazines as a journalist.