Interview: Ratish Nanda, CEO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC)
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a large group of institutions that was set up in the 1980s and is currently working in 30 countries. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture looks at culture to leverage socio-economic gain. In conversation with Sudeshna Banerjee, Ratish Nanda, chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), describes how conservation can generate employment in India
The Aga Khan Trust is the first private sector participant in the field of restoration and conservation of Indian monuments. How did it all begin?
The role of the Aga Khan Development Network is to improve the quality of life and we do it in different ways. There are agencies that work in rural development like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, looking at uplifting life in the rural sector. The AKTC looks at culture to leverage socio-economic gain. Our principal focus is to help the government to meet its own objective. On the 25th anniversary of India’s independence His Highness the Aga Khan gifted his palace in Pune to the Indian government.
In India, we started working on restoration in 1997 on the occasion of India’s 50th anniversary, when His Highness the Aga Khan gifted the garden restoration of Humayun’s tomb to India. We soon signed an MoU with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This took some time and we could only sign the MoU in 1999 as it was the first time any private network was coming forward to offer funds and restore any national monument in India.
It took the government of India two years to set up a national fund to receive our money and allow us to do this work. We finished that project in 2003 and left India. In 2004, we were invited again and His Highness was requested by the government to do more work in the culture sector. We looked at about 50 sites that the Indian government had suggested and chose to come back to this area since the Aga Khan thought of completing the work around Humayun’s tomb with 50 projects in and around the area.
We chose to landscape about 200-plus acres. We also carried out major work in health, education, sanitation, vocational training and urban improvement in the vicinity. That agreement was finally signed in 2007. It’s a 15-year project that will go on till 2022. In 2013, we were requested by the government of Telangana to do some work in Hyderabad and we chose to work at the Qutb Shahi Tombs. That is another 10-year project we are looking at completing 100 plus acres of land and 80 monuments in a 10-year period.
You said you work along with partners for the upliftment of human endeavour. Please share instances.
We see ourselves in totality across the world, not just an agency involved in conservation or restoration projects but also as an agency that is able to get together other people. Both in Delhi and Hyderabad, we are able to do a lot more than we have envisaged. We have created new partnerships.
The Delhi project was in partnership with the ASI, South Delhi Municipal Corporation and Central Public Works Department. The Hyderabad project is in partnership with the Department of Archaeology, the government of Telangana and the Quli Qutb Shah Development Authority. But in addition to these agencies who signed the MoU, we have been able to rope in private agencies like the Tata Trust and the Interglobe Foundation that have been partnering and funding us and also government agencies like the Delhi Development Authority, Ministry of Tourism, the US Embassy and Norway and others for various project components. This allows us to raise funds and meet our goals across the world. We have a lot of our own money from the Aga Khan Trust and we are able to generate more money by raising funds too.
What’s critical is that it’s not about raising funds but building funds with like-minded organisations to fulfil objectives. For example, Havels’ CSR is mostly focused on conservation. So we are partnering with Havels to conserve some monuments. It’s not about some corporates cutting a cheque.
A lot of partners work on different project components. The Delhi project itself has about 200 small projects in it — a school, toilet and monuments. When you do urban conservation, the objective is to work in an urban area, nothing is enough in terms of what you can do. The people have hundreds of different needs. You have to identify and help meet them. Essentially, what we are doing here is fulfilling the objectives of CPWD, ASI, MCD and many other agencies. There are multiple objectives for which you need multiple partners.
What kind of challenges did you face in conservation and restoration?
If there were no challenges then somebody else would have already done the restoration and conservation work. Working in India, the principal challenge comes even 20 years after we have been working. We started in 1997 with Humayun’s tomb garden restoration. Even 20 years later we are the only private agency working on national monuments. That itself is a challenge as it brings in great responsibility. So one of the things is that the culture sector has not got liberalised. It doesn’t have large non-government participation, be it corporate or philanthropy. That is seen as government’s preserve. Conservation in India cannot be the responsibility of the government alone. Each one of us has to be involved.
Another critical challenge is that these are large projects. What we have taken up is of large scale, where you need a multi-disciplinary team. We need about 600-700 craftsmen working at one site.
Moreover what is it that we are trying to do, that has not been done before? Conservation, because it’s been the job of the government, the focus is on preservation. Funds haven’t been available and so on. Here we are trying to set international standards, set objectives and create models that can be replicated. Now, not everybody can handle the scale but surely resident welfare associations, institutions, academics can do smaller projects that eventually add up. That is the need of the day. We have done these mega projects as case studies and models but these can be well replicated at a smaller scale in thousands and thousands of places in India. So, the model is not only how to do it but the whole process. We are trying to write this out through publications that list these things in detail for people to find it easier to follow up.
These monuments have been built in a particular style with a particular mix of material. Today you are trying to restore it in such a way that it doesn’t look like patch work. How do you go about it?
I don’t say aesthetics don’t matter but it’s not the major concern for our conservation. One of the critical things we realised from the very onset of our work here is that a lot of inappropriate materials have been used on these monuments in the 20th century. While the original material used in the monuments is lime mortar, in the 20th century a lot of cement was used, which is detrimental to the structure. The problem is the hard cement starts eating away the soft lime mortar. It is a long-term structural preservation issue, rather than an aesthetic problem. Our focus, both in Delhi and Hyderabad, would be to ensure authenticity of material.
The model involves craftsman at every stage of the work — from planning to implementation. In Delhi alone we have had 5,00,000 man days of work by master craftsmen. These projects involve huge employment generation. Hope the government learns from these projects and allows conservation work to come under the ambit of MNREGA. Eighty per cent of our cost is labour intensive.
For us, aesthetics means respecting the intention of the original builder post conservation. When you remove cement and apply lime mortar it looks new for a few years. A lot of criticism comes in and often conservationists add material to make it look aged. We do not do this as we are not in the business of selling antiques. We are here to do work and ensure that the building is here to stay for long years ahead. For that we need to use the original material in the same manner as it was used in the sixteenth century.
Do you have scientific labs to determine the mix of matter used in the 16th century monuments?
India lives in many centuries at the same time. Our craftsmen can often tell you the original composition of lime mortar better than any lab can. We, of course, use both. We get the craftsmen to make various samples using different proportions of different materials. For example, in lime mortar, at different levels, we use jaggery, egg white, urad dal and sesame. These, technically, don’t show up in many of the lab results but we do the lab tests anyway to understand what was original.
Often you have to relocate people to clear encroachments before conservation work begins. How do you manage?
We have a very simple objective. We are here to improve people’s lives and we would not like to get into any situation where we would have to negatively affect their lives. There are times when you have to take an initiative to understand what is the value. For us, relocation of people has really been the last resort. For example, we were able to successfully relocate about 20 families from the Baoli. We had built alternate accommodations. We had provided aid to the families in terms of travel grants, health insurance, putting the children to school, giving vocational training to women and youth for livelihood and we have done as much as we could to minimise the hardship of moving.
We have done it with the belief that moving would be good for those families. For example, at the Baoli, 80 people were living in complete unsanitary conditions with 8-9 people living in a 6/6 ft room — almost on top of one another. So relocation was done in a very humane manner to ensure a better livelihood. This can be done only by non-government organisations. The government helped us by allotting space for relocation. It takes a long time to overcome mistrust but then that’s what we are here to do. Although we haven’t been always successful, we try our best.
Any new projects or sub projects that you are working on?
We do not talk about projects till we finish our job because we cannot afford to fail. But yes, there are many projects within these projects, which are being taken up. For us, the whole project is larger than the sum total of individual projects.
For us, in Delhi it is necessary to fix the monuments but also restore the gardens. It’s necessary to plant 20,000 trees but also build toilets. It was important for us to ensure that the women residing in Nizamuddin have access to economic opportunities. It was also important for us to fix the sewer lines, water supply and do housing improvements while fixing monuments. All of that is happening.
What were the major challenges you faced in fixing sewer lines?
The critical thing in everything that we do, takes time. The way you need CT scan, MRI and all other scans on the human body, you need to do the same with monuments too. We have to check why the sewer lines are getting stuck, what are the levels that are blocked. All that requires a lot of study, planning, expertise, a lot of patience and persistence. These are not things that could be completed over a 5-year period. That’s why we always sign a 10-year agreement. In the case of Delhi, we got an extension of 5 years after a 10-year agreement. Anywhere in the world these projects would be 100-year projects but we are in India.
Often while digging you come across archaeological evidences, where you unearth something from an earlier era. How do you go about the whole process of conservation?
We have a very good understanding of the site and what happened there for the last seven or eight centuries. We are able to determine even before intervention, looking at archival records on what could be discovered. For example, when we were restoring the garden, we realised the enclosure wall had been demolished in the 1980s.
We found the original foundations and built around that. That is one aspect of restoring and reconstructing history. Secondly, when you are doing a new building, for example a museum or a toilet, then you want to make sure there is no underlying archaeology that is demolished. So it is very important to choose structures so that no significant archaeology exists.
Choosing a site based on archival information and past records is not sufficient. In the case of Humayun’s tomb site museum, we had to go through a whole process of ground penetrating radar survey. While it cost a lot of money, it was worth the effort. We were quite confident that none existed because there were roads and shops that had been built there that were demolished from the time I have known.
Sometimes this ground penetrating radar survey may not pick up significant elements. In that case, we cut 3-4 cross trenches across the site of 100 metres/50 metres with a depth of 10 feet, which is the major archaeological layer. This is done manually to make sure if something comes up it is visible.
At Rahim’s tomb, we needed to make sure there was no underlying path so we did a lot of surveys by cutting trenches. We didn’t find anything although we were expecting (something). Even when we use machines, we do so under strict supervision. Even at night supervision is critical in this work.
As far as maintenance is concerned in a typical public private partnership like yours, how is it managed after your work gets over?
We work at the pleasure of the ASI or any other government body who is a partner. We are here as long as we are needed and as long as we are asked to stay. In an ideal world, what we have got here is that since it’s a heritage project, material is very critical. If the material stays for the first two-three years then it’s fine. In Humayun’s tomb, for example, there’s been so much seepage that we had to redo portions again and again and for that we may have to continue with the process for the next several years. But the monuments as such do not require attention for another 100-200 years, provided simple things like keeping the rain water gutter clean, ensuring no water collects or vandalism happens. In the case of Humayun’s tomb museum and Sunder Nursery, we have committed to managing the sites for a 10-year-period post completion. So during that period we intend to make these areas financially sustainable.
What is your plan on the financial sustainability of these restored monuments?
Conservation, thanks to our efforts, has now been perceived as an area where a lot of CSR funds can be utilised. Philanthropy plays a big part in conservation, although knowing that no end sight is possible. The idea is not to really recover funds we have used but to make sure there is a huge visitor number. The garden restoration has led to a 1,000 per cent increase in visitors at Humayun’s Tomb. Hence, conservation well done will definitely attract a large number of visitors but in rural areas such expectation is not possible. Over there conservation means sites can be used for local human resources and become infrastructure assets that the local community can use. Can schools not run in historic buildings? You have to adapt to community needs.
The second part is how to attract tourism? That cannot happen only through conservation. Tourism needs facilities. This is what the Humayun’s tomb museum is all about — creating a new 21st century attraction.
Sunder Nursery is about giving green space. At this juncture, we are getting two million visitors. We expect it to double in the next five years.
Critically what is absolutely important is that we need to perceive conservation of historic buildings as an economic asset. We pride ourselves for being an ancient civilisation but there’s very little that remains. I think what we are trying to demonstrate here is that these are financial assets that can help India achieve objectives in a very innovative manner and at the same time instil a sense of pride and achieve communal harmony.
It has direct and indirect benefits through tourism, job creation and restoring the environment. For every rupee sensibly invested in conservation, the returns are manifold. For our efforts in Delhi, 12 more monuments have been designated as world heritage sites. We hope the Qutb Shahi tombs will also be designated as a world heritage site. This is also about national pride.