I proposed something radical on a talk that I gave yesterday. Radical that is, in the context of Indian archaeology. I proposed that the government allow semi-privatization of archaeology with some level of government oversight.
Now, what do I mean by this? Didn’t the current government already try to do this in 2015-16 by literally putting up some ASI sites on auction, allowing big private players to bid and then giving them rights to manage these sites? Didn’t we already have this debate about how the Tatas, the Birlas, the Adanis and the Ambanis would end up bidding for these sites and managing them, without much expertise and probably add their names in front of these sites, much like they do for IPL or ISL teams they own? Didn’t I already write a blog protesting this?
The answer to all of the above is yes. I did not believe then, as I don’t now, that merely auctioning off cultural heritage sites to the highest bidders is the way to go for privatization in archaeology. It is a top-down approach, which is unnecessary and potentially makes these sites more at risk at private, non-expert hands.
But my proposal is this. Why can we not let private archaeology companies to come up. The companies founded and run by trained archaeologists, conservators and other heritage professionals. These companies can then be employed by the government, national or local, to survey, excavate, conserve, repurpose, monetize and manage historic sites and landscapes. Why can we not have a change in legislation that allows such companies to come up by making pre-construction salvage excavations in historic towns and cities mandatory for each and every building project? The existence of private players under the oversight of the ASI as a regulatory body will make the work of the ASI easier too. A country as large as ours and as rich in cultural heritage as ours needs more groups of experts exploring, discovering, excavating and maintaining cultural heritage sites. Finally, it will create a large number of jobs for archaeologists, historians, conservators and other cultural heritage specialists and make these disciplines worth pursuing. Lack of employment opportunities in archaeology and in the cultural heritage, in general, has, over the years, significantly reduced the number of students in these departments. Privatization can give a new lease of life for these disciplines and those, like me, who dream of becoming archaeologists from their childhoods.