PPP way to go

PPP way to go

Heritage conservation

With so many of our heritage sites in a sorry state of disrepair, including the Taj Mahal, the idea of public-private partnership (PPP) to preserve heritage monuments and sites is a most welcome idea. In April, the Dalmia Group won the bid to maintain the Red Fort in Delhi under the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ initiative, though the initiative ran into controversy for political reasons. Subsequently, the iconic Charminar and then the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad have come up for private participation in maintaining and managing them.

I first wrote about the idea of involving the private sector in heritage preservation well over a couple of decades ago, with the added suggestion of floating a Heritage Building Fund (HBF) or Bonds involving various housing finance companies and banks, with tax-breaks thrown in. Of course, those were not the times when PPP was a popular idea. However, with the enormous success of PPP in the airport sector, especially in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, the involvement of private companies in preserving and managing heritage sites is an idea whose time has come. It is good that the government thinks so, too.

Perhaps with PPP, the heritage sector will see the same changes for the better that the airport sector saw. After all, any heritage site needs excellent approach roads, hotels in proximity, restaurants, not to speak of regular investments to preserve the structures, which constantly degrade with time and pollutants. Our government departments have never shown themselves up to the task, as our constantly decreasing tourism numbers indicate, though ours is perhaps one of the richest countries in terms of what we have to showcase before the world.  

That even the toilets of the Taj Mahal stink sharply even today – Swachh Bharat notwithstanding – is seriously denting our national honour and pride in the tourism space, just as our run-down airports once did. Most of our other monuments under the cash-starved Archeological Survey of India, much of whose budget goes towards paying its manpower costs, leaving little for heritage conservation, tell the same sorry tale.

It is understandable if people have some legitimate apprehensions when national monuments are reposed in private hands for management. But it should be apparent that as long as the ownership and control of the heritage sites vest with the governments, whether central or state, leaving only the maintenance of the monuments and operation of hotels and restaurants attached to them to the private sector, there would be no compromise of the public interest involved in any way.

If anything, the monuments are bound to be better preserved and attract more funds for the sustainability of such monuments. As long as the government carefully controls the systems and processes involved, and any mismanagement is severely penalised, PPP is bound to be a success.

Another area where PPP can be brought to bear upon beneficially is large-format sports. Think about the Commonwealth Games (CWG) fiasco in 2010. It may be a long time before our national pride and honour in putting up a large spectacle world-event is restored. In contrast, haven’t IPL and other similar formats shown what the private sector can do to the popularity of sports?

True, large-scale corruption has become a millstone around our neck in most fields. But it is not merely corruption that’s at play in the mismanagement of heritage or sports. China is at least as corrupt as India; and yet the state machinery of China put up a spectacle worthy of the world for the 2008 Olympics and maintains its heritage to world standards for the most part. 

The reasons aren’t far to seek. In China, whether in heritage preservation or management of sports events, the government officials remain accountable for results, while in India, there is virtually no such accountability in practically any sector, so that corruption remains an end in itself in our government-managed projects. We facetiously chalk up all China’s successes to their autocracy and all our failures to democracy, as if democracy is the root of all ills in the world. Where China scores is that it has chosen its systems such that they deliver where it counts most, and we have not. 

And that is where our PPP experience kicks in. It may be that there were some loose screws that needed tightening when the government experimented with for the first time it in the building and operation of airports. But it can hardly be anybody’s case, the erstwhile CAG’s unfounded noises notwithstanding, that the PPP experiment in airports has not been a success.

I wrote in 2010 that the only way the government could have made money from CWG, rather than lose money (an estimated Rs 30,000 crore), would have been through a sound public-private partnership, by getting private companies to bid for segments of the projects. While the government could have done the overall planning, each segment of the project, whether it pertained to developing stadiums, flyovers or living apartments, could have been transparently auctioned away to private players. 

For, once the games are over, what would the government do with the stadiums or the apartments? On the other hand, inviting private players could have ensured that the bidders would have factored in the post-Games use of these assets and bid accordingly and operated them even after the games, ensuring the ongoing health of the assets. Similarly, the government could have compensated the private players for the overbridges and flyovers with annuity payments, which the private players could have securitised and encashed. 

Private participation in heritage and sports will help give a booster shot to the tourism and sports climate in the country.

(Raghunathan is an academic and author)