THIS WEEK, MEET K.J. ALPHONS

No monument in India is visitable

K.J. Alphons, Union Tourism minister

Union Tourism Minister K.J. Alphons found himself in the eye of a storm after the government announced that the Red Fort would be adopted by the Dalmia Bharat group. The decision is part of the government’s ‘Monument Mitra’ scheme, under which private players can adopt a heritage site. In an interview, he talks about the opposition to the decision, which he calls fake news.

Edited excerpts:

No right-thinking person would object to a public-private partnership. But, a perception has been created that the Red Fort—a symbol of India itself—is being leased, sold and taken over by a profit-seeking company. How do you address these fears?

The Red Fort or any monument or heritage building in this country is not going to be sold. It is not going to be leased out. At the Red Fort, the Dalmias, who have adopted it, will not be allowed to go into the building at all, into the monument at all.

They have no access to the main monument?

They have no access to the main monument; they will not touch the main monument; they will not do any restoration or any modification in the monument at all. So, this news of the past few days is completely fake news.

You are calling them all fake news?

It is not the truth. Look, in India—this 5,000-year civilisation—we have thousands and thousands of monuments, including the Red Fort. They are stinking. They are dirty. They have no basic amenities. There is no garbage collection. There is no drinking water. There are no chairs to sit down. You will not get a coffee there. It is all a huge mess. I was in Agra today. Everything is in a huge mess. And, we are an independent country for 70 years. We have not done it. The concept we are trying now is to let people own their heritage. Everybody should say, ‘wow, the Red Fort is mine, the Qutb Minar is mine.’

K.J. ALPHONS Tourism minister K.J. Alphons is a former IAS officer who resigned from the administrative service to join politics, in 2006. He first came to national prominence as the commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority, demolishing illegal buildings in Delhi. He is currently a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan.

People have a stake in knowing what will happen under this policy. You are clarifying that private players have no access to restoration or repair of monuments, and that will continue to be the domain of experts at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Absolutely.

Another fear is about signage and commercialisation. How do you ensure that there will not be any crass promotional banners of different companies which will damage the aesthetics of these heritage spaces?

Any signage or design will be put up only with permission of the ASI. And, you know how the bureaucrats of the ASI are. You want to get a centimetre, you go fight with somebody for ten years to get that one centimetre.

The private players are giving money from CSR budgets; they get tax benefits and it is a branding exercise. But let us look at 05 crore over five years, which is the amount, for example, that is coming to the Red Fort. There are historians like Sohail Hashmi, who argue that this is too much to a private player for too little money. And, you could in fact raise this money yourself.

What does he say about the fact that after 70 years of independence and various governments ruling India—especially one party was in power for most of the time—all governments have made efforts, but not one monument in India is visitable? We have experimented with various things.

Not one monument is visitable? That is a very strong statement coming from the tourism minister.

Yes. I was at the Taj yesterday. The Taj inside the monument is fine. But, just go outside. My God, it is terrible.

What was your experience at Taj?

See, the facilities are bad. It is dirty, it is stinking. Everything around the Taj is bad. You need better toilets, better ticketing and better queuing facilities.... And, this is the jewel in our crown. You take any monument, it is all defaced and in a bad shape, and is this how we want to show 5,000 years of our heritage?

So, then you are saying it is not just about raising the additional 05 crore. It is also about the management, the attitude and the mindset. And, in someways, you need the private sector’s mindset in managing the peripheral facilities.

See, we need a complete mindset change.

Monuments like Red Fort and Taj Mahal can raise Rs 20 crore a year. The problem is the allocations they get from your ministry—not more than Rs 50 lakh.

See, we cannot just argue and say that this is what a monument generates, so it must get exactly the same amount for its maintenance. I would be very happy if it can be done. But where is the money going to come from? Take for example, for my ministry, only from foreign tourists, last year I got Rs 1,80,000 crore. Can I, as a minister, tell the finance minister and the prime minister, ‘look here I am generating Rs 1,80,000 crore, and I need all that money as my budget?’ That is not possible, because we need to create basic infrastructure and the money for it comes from various sources.

Comparisons have been drawn with the Aga Khan Foundation’s restoration of the Humayun’s tomb in Delhi. But, you know the Aga Khan Foundation used people with deep expertise who have a long history in doing this work. But, what expertise does a cement company or a tour operator have?

That is a huge insult on India, Indians.

No, this has been raised as a criticism.

No, it is because Aga Khan foundation is a foreign agency. It is not an Indian agency.

But, they are doing a lot of work in India with their Indian chapter.

They have done a very good job. But, mind you, this was done during the Congress regime, entrusting one of our finest monuments to a foreign agency. And, they have done a good job and the then prime minister said, ‘this is fantastic example of private-public partnership.’

Manmohan Singh was the prime minister.

I think the Congress has a very poor memory. If you could give it to the Aga Khan foundation—which is a foreign agency, which I have no problem with—why cannot Indians do it. Why do you assume that Mr Dalmia is going to come and knock at the brick himself? Whoever is going to adopt is going to use expertise.

So, you are saying private players will have to present a vision document and hire experts to do so.

Of course.

And, it has to be approved by a committee in the ministry, and there is no auction, there is no highest bidder...

There is no bidder, there is no bidding, there is no highest bidding and there is no money involved at all. You decide how much money you want to spend. And, we are looking at who can bring out the best from a site.

Another concern is that of history as a political battlefield. We have seen the Congress and the BJP locked in ferocious battles in the interpretation of history. So, people do not want the monuments to become like textbooks.

The narrative is going to be decided by the ASI. Not anybody else.

If a museum comes up, and you have notes at the museum, you have explainers—who will decide on that content?

Here, a light and sound show is one of the advanced facilities which the ‘Monument Mitra’ can produce. But, every comma in that and every word in that would be vetted by the ASI, and has to be approved by the ASI.