India’s devious reason to not spend more on culture

‘Difficult to allocate public fund to art and culture: Centre’, The Hindu, March 19, 2023:

Given the high disparity it experiences in elementary rural infrastructure like health, education and transportation, it might not be “tenable” for a developing nation like India to allocate a considerable proportion of its public fund to the promotion of art and culture, the Culture Ministry has said. … [Officials], however, observed that the Ministry has been consistently able to increase its budgetary outlays over the years except during the COVID-pandemic period where priority was given to other social sector Ministries.

This is a curious claim by the Union Ministry of Culture, in response to a parliamentary committee finding that India was underspending on arts and culture compared to Australia, China, Singapore, the UK, and the US. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine that the expenditure on this front in India could rival the allocations for defence, healthcare, education, or social welfare. But on the other, the justification – in terms of poor “elementary rural infrastructure” for “health, education and transportation” – is dubious: the Ministry appears to say that it can’t spend more on health because its expenses on the latter are sizeable, but a) India’s economy and annual budget are both big enough to accommodate increases on both counts, and b) India’s expense on elementary rural infra for health, etc. isn’t coming from the arts and culture budget.

But in saying what it did, the Ministry is setting up a fallacious narrative: that if expenses on one count are lower, it’s because they’re higher on the other count, the fallacy being that the national government can’t ‘route’ money from anywhere else. Yet it can, by all means, by cutting its spending on defence or the Ministry of AYUSH, for just two examples, just a little. This narrative is also dangerous because it pits the two enterprises — culture and rural infra — against each other, as a foundation for the government to justify its questionable privatisation drive (emphasis added):

The Ministry was also trying and evolving innovative methods to maximise the participation of non-government organisations in the field of promotion and conservation of art and culture like in some of the countries mentioned above, they said giving the example of the Monument Mitra scheme. Under this scheme, the government aims to hand over around 1,000 monuments under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to the private sector for their upkeep.

“Culture should be an area where a large part of expenditure needs to be sourced from non-government sources” and hence the Ministry was also supporting non-governmental and voluntary organisations through its various schemes for participating in overall propagation, preservation and promotion of all forms of art and culture, the report submitted by the Department Related Standing Committee on Transport Tourism and Culture quoted the Culture Ministry as saying.

Why should culture “be an area where a large part of expenditure” is from “non-government sources”? The privatisation itself is questionable because, as Nachiket Chanchani, an associate professor of South Asian art and visual culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, enumerated on March 1, 2023, the problems include:

  • “Giving businesses, rather than trained professionals, a chance to build museums and interpretation centres and develop their content threatens India’s understanding of its own past.”
  • Privatisation “sidelines the mandate of the ASI and abandons The Sarnath Initiative, guidelines devised by the ASI, the Getty Trust, U.S., the British Museum, and National Culture Fund to safe keep excavated objects and present them to visitors in an engaging manner.”
  • “Many monuments selected for the scheme … already have tourist infrastructure. What is driving the need for new ticket offices and gift shops?”
  • It’s not acceptable to “let businesses occupy prime public land and build their own brands … at the cost of further diminishing grounds around iconic monuments”
  • “It will undermine local communities and their relationships with historical sites.”

There we have the final irony, in the same vein as the environment ministry that’s weakening environmental protections and the law ministry whose minister appears to be threatening some judges: a culture ministry that’s eroding India’s cultural heritage. And if you want it to do better, maybe say goodbye to “elementary rural infrastructure”.