Saturday, August 8, 2009

Funding - the Raj way

Much as we may hate the British rulers, we ought to be beholden to them for the monuments, institutions and systems they bequeathed us. Some of the buildings they built to house colleges, hospitals and government offices are beautiful specimens of architecture and are landmarks in our cities today. Yet the British were no philanthropists. In fact, they were penny-pinchers at core. But they were clever and resourceful enough to know where to tap for funds and get things done without dipping into their profits. The British Governors, Commissioners and Collectors involved the local Rajas, landlords and businessmen in this task, cajoling or coercing them as was considered expedient. The Indian ‘haves’ readily responded and donated in cash and kind. In most cases the motive was a mixture of altruism and self-interest. They wanted to leave behind something for which the posterity would remember them; they also wanted to ingratiate themselves with the British officialdom in the hope of certain favours, most of all honorifics such as Maharaja, Raja Bahadur, Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur, Rai Saheb, and Khan Saheb etc.

As early as the mid- nineteenth century the British prevailed upon these potentates to open a chain of Anglo-Vernacular schools in their jurisdictions, thus facilitating the introduction of western education in India. The government also made them partners in promoting higher English education. Premier institutions such as the Patna College in Bihar and the Ravenshaw College in Orissa developed through donations and endowments from the native states and local zamindars. The reputed Patna Medical College Hospital would have been stillborn but for the local donors pitching in. Clearance was received from the Government of India in 1921 to set up a medical college at Patna. The project involved heavy capital expenditure but how to palm it off to others? The Prince of Wales was visiting India around the same time. The government was quick to seize the opportunity and promptly created a Prince of Wales Medical College Fund. A donation in excess of rupees fifteen lacs was collected in no time. When the time of reckoning came the college was named after the Prince and the donors had to remain content with wards and facilities named after them.

While health and education were on the top of the agenda, the government sought private contributions in other fields equally readily. That is how many district towns got their magnificent Town Halls. When the earthquake hit Bihar in 1934, the government heavily depended on private donations in cash and kind to meet the twin tasks of rehabilitation and reconstruction, in some cases of entire townships. Even memorials to the British monarch and viceroys were raised with the money so collected. The Victoria Memorial of Calcutta, the Taj Mahal of eastern India, is the most outstanding specimen of this exercise.

The Alipur Zoo in Calcutta could not have become the attraction it is without continuous flow of private donations. The Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (shortly to be named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, if the Government of Maharashtra has its way) owes much to the munificence of people such as Ibrahim Ramitulla, Cowasjee Jahangir and the Nawab of Junagadh. The pattern was the same throughout the country. Ironically these carried the name of a British monarch, Viceroy or Governor. At best a plaque in some corner acknowledged the donor.

The Raj had no pretences of being a welfare state. It was a police state and it knew its limitations where public spending was concerned. During over fifty years as a free nation we stretched the concept of “welfare” state to ludicrous limits. In the process the government bit more than they could chew. They were suspicious of involving the private players in the task of nation building. Always strapped for funds but still wanting to do everything by themselves, they slipped in the core areas of mass literacy and primary health care. They failed to nurture even the IITs and IIMs set up during the Nehru era and these are now appealing to their alumni and fishing for sponsors. Centrally funded Delhi University and Jawaharlal University are to follow suit. To add insult to injury, while the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research are languishing for want of funds, the government have decided to endow a chair of Indian history and culture at the Oxford University at a cost of 1.8 million pounds sterling.
Equally sad is the story of our heritage sites. Far from erecting new monuments that would make the coming generations proud, we have not been able to look after the ones we have inherited. Rather than throwing their hands up in despair the government should draw a lesson or two from the Raj. Fortunately they do seem to be waking up. The Department of Culture, Government of India, set up the National Culture Fund in 1996 as a funding mechanism “different from the existing sources and patterns of funding for the arts and culture in India”. Donations to the fund, exempt from Income Tax, are to be used for maintaining the historical sites and developing them as tourist spots. In exchange, the sponsors get advertising space the quantum of which is to be decided by the Department of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India acting in tandem. The Taj Mahal is not up for grabs but the others are. Only in the year 2K have some offers been forthcoming. Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, a world heritage site, is to be illuminated by the Oberoi group. After Hyatt shied away, the Hotel Association of Northern India has come forward to take over the Red Fort. The Indian Oil Corporation is interested in Qutb Minar. Though the list is long, the restoration of the Sun Temple at Konark and the Ajanta & Ellora Caves is priority. Any sponsors?

But maintenance is not enough. Some long-lasting institutions and monuments ought to be created as also some new facilities developed. One such area crying for help is higher education, technical and professional. Not everyone need go to a college. Let institutions of higher professional education be fewer but be real centres of excellence. Setting them up and then running them efficiently will obviously be an expensive proposition and the state will do well to invite individual promoters or consortia to take up these projects. These should be run as any other business enterprise and not as charitable institutions. Fees will understandably be high and admissions to these will have to be restricted to those who can afford to pay and to the meritorious poor through government and privately endowed scholarships. Let the institutes be named after the promoters if they so wish. In any case it is not a good practice to name the colleges and universities after political personalities. (We can keep Mahatma Gandhi as an exception.) Setting up an Indian School of Business at Hyderabad is a step in the right direction.

We received the legacy of the National Library, National Archives and Natural History Museum in places like Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai. They have reached a point of saturation and decay. Huge recurring expenditure is involved in preserving and updating the contents and maintaining the structures. Horizons of knowledge have expanded and we need many more archives and museums devoted to subjects such as space technology, oceanography, microbiology etc. For that matter, is a Birla planetarium in Calcutta or a Tarporewala aquarium in Mumbai enough for a country of India’s dimensions? Surely we need many more. We talk of environment and global warming but how many botanical parks, comparable to the Shibpur Botanical Garden in Calcutta, have we added during our existence as an independent nation? The Jahangir Art Gallery in Mumbai reportedly remains booked for two to three years in advance, thus denying many potential MF Hussains the opportunity to display their talent. There is need for more art galleries not only in Mumbai but in other cities as well. There must be art lovers among our business barons who will love to set up such galleries and go down in history as patrons of art.

The scope is unlimited. The government should be the catalyst, offer suggestions and help, and leave the rest to the sponsors (no mailed fist, no pinpricks, please). Once the government have established their bonafides a generous response can be expected. Our private and public sector behemoths are the present-day Maharajas. The tribe has grown beyond the Tatas and Birlas. We have Ambanis, Azim Premji, Narayana Murthy and many others and funds can be comfortably taken care of. If the Raj (British) could do it, why can’t we? In fact we can do better by allowing the promoters and donors to name these after themselves, unlike the British who appropriated the name and sent the benefactors into oblivion.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar)
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