The value of cultural heritage

Budgetary allocations show that we still look at cultural heritage as a drain on our national exchequer rather than a powerful catalyst for development

The value of cultural heritage

It was June 21, 2014 when the National Assembly of Pakistan approved Rs4.3 trillion federal budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The same day, the World Heritage Committee in its 38th session in Doha granted approval to list the China-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan section of the celebrated Silk Road as a World Heritage Site. What a remarkable achievement!

For the first time the three nations jointly applied for the prestigious nomination, which was made possible because of their consistent effort for almost seven years. CCTV, a leading Chinese channel, reported that the initial section of the ancient Silk Road declared a World Heritage Site is about 5,000 kilometres long. Other than the road, the listing also includes historical sites along the route, of which 22 sites are in China; eight in Kazakhstan; and three are in Kyrgyzstan. CCTV quoted a prominent Chinese archaeologist Liu Qingzhu as saying: "The purpose of including the Silk Road onto the World Heritage list is to let people remember it and protect it. The Silk Road is a road for exchanges. It is a road of friendship. It promoted the cultural development of mankind."

What happens when a heritage site is inscribed on the World Heritage List? The simple answer is: the list gives immense universal value to the heritage site, which from a certain country’s property ascends to the status of ‘common heritage of humanity’.

A highly prestigious World Heritage Committee that draws representatives from 21 countries has the final say in declaring a heritage property as a World Heritage Site. Any UN member state that is also a signatory to the 1972 World Heritage Convention can apply for nomination of its heritage sites on the World Heritage List. Inclusion on the List not only provides a way for international support to protect the site that has an "outstanding universal value" but also boosts tourism to the area.

Currently, Pakistan has six of its many hundred heritage sites acknowledged as World Heritage Sites. These include Moenjodaro, Taxila, Buddhist ruins and city at Takht-e-Bhai, Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens, Thatta monuments at Makli, and Rohtas Fort. A quick visit to any of these sites will reveal that most of them are steadily deteriorating due to apathy and our ‘lingering perception’ that heritage protection is a luxury that cannot be afforded by nations faced with challenges like energy crisis, unemployment, education and healthcare.

In Pakistan, we still look at our cultural heritage as a drain on our national exchequer rather than a powerful catalyst for development. Our policy makers still seem to be far from the realisation that heritage can be a key factor in the country’s social and economic development rather than a liability.

Pakistan has six of its many hundred heritage sites acknowledged as World Heritage Sites. A quick visit to any of these sites will reveal that most of them are steadily deteriorating due to apathy and our ‘lingering perception’ that heritage protection is a luxury.

We have several national level government agencies that are working on different aspects of culture and heritage. For example, Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) and National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) are working to promote the visual and performing arts in Pakistan. The National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, popularly known as Lok Virsa, is mandated to conduct research on oral traditions, folklore, and indigenous cultural heritage. We then have the Department of Archaeology and Museums, which is responsible for preservation and conservation of historical monuments and archaeological sites. By the same token, we have several provincial government bodies entrusted with the responsibility of heritage protection.

After the 18th Amendment, these agencies enjoy more power and control to manage cultural heritage in the provinces. Apart from the Punjab and Sindh, other provinces and areas are still struggling to recognize that heritage can be ‘a trampoline for social and economic development’, in the same way that energy, industry, agriculture and transportation systems can contribute to the country’s progress.

The Federal Budget 2014-15 including the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) rightly focuses on the sectors that will contribute to the economic development. On the scale of priorities, the government’s development agenda emphasises the development of water resources, hydropower, highways, railways and human development. Alongside PSDP, the budget also has announced special initiatives that are meant to give impetus to "sectors central to economic development". These initiatives include exports promotions, incentives packages for textile industry, agriculture and housing. The budget has set aside a huge sum of Rs370 billion under "grants and transfers to the provinces and others". These include Grants in Aid to provinces (Rs32 billion) and Grants to Others (Rs338 billion).

Development loans and advances is yet another category of allocations in the budget that the federal government makes available to the provinces, special areas, various institutions, and district governments to assist in carrying out their development programs. Under this category, the federal government has allocated Rs318 billion in the 2014-15 budget.

At the federal level, the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage is the custodian of Pakistan’s cultural heritage. The ministry has the capacity to provide leadership to its attached departments like the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Lok Virsa and PNCA to protect and promote tangible and intangible heritage assets that have national significance.

The ministry can take a number of initiatives to create public awareness about our cultural heritage which is vital to our sense of identity as a nation. The ministry can lead planning and implementation of pilot projects to bring heritage and tourism together in business ventures and demonstrate how provincial and local governments can capitalise on the potential for economic benefits from heritage tourism.

A closer look at the budget allocated for recreation, culture and religion shows that Rs7 billion have been budgeted under this head to meet the current or recurring expenditure. The bulk of current expenditure under this line item has been earmarked for Broadcasting and Publishing, which is 78.2 per cent of the total allocation. In the budget, Rs424 million is available for the development projects proposed by the ministry.

The PSDP document shows that the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage has allocations approved for its 33 ongoing and two new projects. Of these 35 projects, only five are related to the documentation, preservation and restoration of cultural assets. Remaining 30 deal with the establishment of rebroadcast stations, dubbing of Pakistani dramas, and capacity-building in economic and development journalism.

Another striking feature of the Budget 2014-15 is the provision of Rs118 billion for special development programmes outside PSDP. These national programmes include the Benazir Income Support Programme and six schemes under the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme. Schemes under the Prime Minister’s Programme are worth Rs21 billion and range from interest free loans to educational fee reimbursement. This special programme is designed, according to Finance Minister Senator Ishaq Dar, to provide support to "our vulnerable and young people. We owe it to them; it is their own resources that we are managing in trust and making sure that in their state of vulnerability we are there to help them".

Cultural heritage is largely ignored in the federal budget. No major project is envisioned under any of the budget categories including PSDP, grants, development loans, special development programmes and Prime Minister’s schemes that can help turn our heritage as the vehicle for economic development -- a national programme that can contribute towards making heritage a vital element of our mainstream economy. Despite the commendable work undertaken by the Department of Archaeology and Museums, most of the historical sites in Pakistan still remain un-catalogued and many of them are at the verge of extinction. Even some of our six World Heritage Sites are extremely vulnerable.

In the same way, our intangible heritage is in need of immediate support. This is despite the enormous contribution Lok Virsa, PNCA and others are making in the field. There are more than two dozen Pakistani languages that are dying. Several forms of traditional dance, music, crafts and folklore are facing the threat of extinction. Can we expect another special initiative or Prime Minister’s Programme to protect endangered languages or a Prime Minister’s Commission on World Heritage Sites? We need a commission that not only protects the existing world heritage sites but also identifies new sites for inclusion on the World Heritage List. With a government focused on transforming Pakistan into a developed economy one is justified to expect concrete measures from the government to explore and realise the economic potential of our precious cultural heritage.

The value of cultural heritage