The collapse of a 2000-year-old heritage structure, identified as the gladiator house, is the latest crisis to hit the world heritage site of Pompeii, the historic Roman city that attracts 2.5 million visitors a year. A few structures were lost in the recent past and until 2008, about 150 sqm of frescoes and 3,000 pieces of stone disappeared every year. Despite repeated warnings by experts and even a declaration of emergency two years ago, not much has been done on the conservation front. Unfortunately, informed criticism is giving way to irrational shrill calls for privatisation of the monuments for better protection. Shortage of funds and poorly managed government institutions are universal problems. It would be a fallacy to reduce the options of heritage management to privatisation. Instead of alienating heritage properties or allowing advertisements on historic structures to raise money, as proposed for the Colosseum in Rome, government can turn to successful alternative models such as the National Trust in the United Kingdom, which prioritises heritage as a public good.

A registered charitable institution, the National Trust has successfully served heritage protection for more than 100 years. This body that manages seven world heritage sites and more than 400 historic structures has, despite the recession, increased funding, widened activities, and registered a 22.5 per cent net gain (2009-10). Sustained efforts to enlarge public participation and decentralise management have contributed to its success. Last year alone, the Trust attracted about 595,000 new members, raising the total membership to 3.7 million assuring a revenue of £125 million a year. France too encourages formation of heritage foundations to support conservation and it has set up 26 regional directorates to implement national policies in close coordination with local bodies. From all this, what must be clear to the policymakers in India is that, while private partnerships can be explored, turning monuments into commercial ventures is not the way forward. The Archaeological Survey of India, the premier government institution in charge of monuments, must be thoroughly redefined and strengthened. Simultaneously, institutional and legal frameworks have to be reviewed to create spaces for imaginative autonomous organisations that will attract public participation, liaise better with local bodies, and improve public outreach.

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