How heritage conservation can be a business opportunity

India has over 30 UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites and now we have Ahmedabad as India’s first heritage city. Conserving the past can be a mercantile exercise, especially for MSMEs, just as it is our historical responsibility

From a professional perspective, SMEs can assist with revitalisation of heritage properties by following the original builder’s design intention by ensuring integrity and authenticity of the material used during earlier times

“India, with several millennia of history, is privileged to have diverse and rich built heritage. Each region of our subcontinent constitutes large number of monumental buildings and remarkable archaeology,” writes Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, in a newspaper column. Apart from over 30 UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, a significant number that only a few other countries have, India’s long past finds embodiment in various architecturally significant forts, palaces, tombs, religious institutions, markets and old cities, which are interwoven with natural and cultural landscapes.

As symbols of history, heritage buildings are vital in providing a sense of identity and pride during this changing time for future generations. Larger heritage precincts or areas reflect diverse religious and cultural influences that along with centuries old cultural institutions create a sense of belonging in users and citizens, and impart distinct flavours to places small and big across geographical expanse of the country.

The present generation is responsible enough to develop optimal ways to preserve, conserve and pass on its heritage to future generations. To unlock the economic potential of heritage is one of the ways to sustain and preserve it. Kant stresses that even the Government of India has recognised that ‘To be meaningful, conservation works need to be coupled with urban improvements, improved transport infrastructure, providing economic opportunities, and improving health, education and sanitation infrastructure. Only then will heritage assets be valued by those living around them”.

Heritage in the City

Recently, Ahmedabad, which was founded in 1411 AD, was declared India’s first World Heritage City. Its old, or walled, city boasts of havelis which are built in traditional Gujarati style, religious structures, marketplaces and neighbourhoods which follow a distinct pattern. All this has historically developed in a closed space of only over five square kilometres. There is already a discussion taking place on the kind of improvements and policies required to realise the city’s potential. Also chosen to be one of India’s first smart cities while conserving its ancient heritage, the UNESCO world heritage tag is an opportunity not only for Ahmedabad but for other historic cities in the country as well.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MHUA), Government of India, launched the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) scheme in 2015 with a focus on holistic development of heritage cities. Apart from realising tourism- and hospitality-related potential, integrating the living traditions in future planning and development of settlements will fulfil development objectives for entire communities. The government has committed to save and enhance existing built and cultural heritage in towns through infrastructure, skill set and entrepreneurship development and technology upgradation.

The urban planner Rutul Joshi has written, “This conservation effort thus also creates opportunities for Make in India objectives and can be met by well planned and implemented conservation effort while simultaneously creating an economic and employment asset.” Therefore, as anywhere else in the world, our built heritage can also be availed for economic gain by providing opportunities for crafts people and local communities.

The scheme supports development of core heritage infrastructure projects which includes revitalisation of urban infrastructure for areas around heritage assets which are identified/approved by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and state governments. The MHUA has defined this as its target under the HRIDAY scheme: “These initiatives shall include development of water supply, sanitation, drainage, waste management, approach roads, footpaths, street lights, tourist conveniences, electricity wiring, landscaping and such citizen services.”

Untapped Potential

Many historic cities like Ahmedabad, though not included in HRIDAY currently, can take this prospect to not only improve the present conditions of their heritage but also create an opportunity to generate economy through developing local small and medium enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are in an ideal place to reap the benefit of this newly opened field owing to their capability “to grow larger, more productive units; their ability to invest and adopt new technologies; and their ability to adapt to new economic circumstances” (A Berry, E Rodriguez and H Sandee in “Small and Medium Enterprise Dynamics In Indonesia”).

While the type of projects which require immediate commencement are still in process of discussion, areas of new expertise or scope of old expertise in new areas have therefore opened. Talking of built environments, there is a developing market for all manner of small and big products that needed to replace or fit into an existing heritage asset and should provide a new functionality but in a historic context. As the volume is not always big, and multiple skills may be required for a small quantum of work, big businesses are not interested in catering to these demands. Both expertise and products are specialised and can fetch a premium, but not many are available. The solution to this problem, therefore, lies in a holistic and strategic approach to developing the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

New Areas of Opportunity

From a professional perspective, SMEs can assist with revitalisation of heritage properties by following the original builder’s design intention by ensuring integrity and authenticity of the material used during earlier times. They can also help in creating new materials and elements, such as flooring, wall textures, fixtures, etc., which appropriately gels with the existing structure and landscape. Heritage and ancillary fields offer a huge new opportunity not only in tourism but also in entrepreneurial field.

SMEs here can provide with the skills, operations and maintenance for the heritage conservation and urban improvements while the large companies can manufacture standarised products, like street lights, benches, boundary walls and reduce gaps among other industries. Additional skills in demand will be in related businesses such as training of guides and interpreters, retails, wholesales, handicraft and souvenir industry, printing industry for maps, books and information, public transportation and provision of accommodation ranging from homestays to destination event venues.

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