The financial crisis induced by the Covid lockdowns and closure of public gatherings has severely affected the protection and promotion of more than 375 historical forts, caves, museums and other heritage sites in Maharashtra.
The Maharashtra Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, responsible for the upkeep of these sites, is working at half its staff capacity and stopped all new recruitments for the last one and half years. The department has also not received money allocated for it in the Maharashtra state budget and as a result the work of archaeological conservation has stopped in the entire state.
Maharashtra has many important monuments and historical sites including several designated by the UNESCO as ‘World Heritage Sites’. These include the world famous Ajanta and Ellora caves..
Many posts in the Directorate have been vacant for years. These posts are to be filled through outsourcing. According to a departmental official in May last year, a proposal was sent to the state government for recruitment for these posts. Over 80 employees for the Directorate were to recruited through outsourcing.
But, before this could be done, the Covid pandemic hit the state and no response has been received from the government in this regard yet. Neither has the recruitment of employees proceeded nor has the amount set aside for archaeological conservation arrived. Out of a total 300 employees, 145 posts are vacant. Even with full strength, officials say, the Directorate would still have been short staffed.
The repeated Covid lockdowns have hit revenues of the state government considerably and the loss to the exchequer is being borne by the heritage sites, which need protection. Revenue deficit has also been cited as reason for not recruiting any employees and due to the shortage of staff, there is a possibility of deterioration in the condition of many historical buildings and other heritage sites.
Every year a budget proposal of nearly Rupees 155 crore is Directorate to the state government for the protection and promotion of heritage sites. But, the state government annually sanctions only around Rs 22-25 crore.
In 2020-21, the Directorate was allocated Rs 40 crore from the Uddhav Thackeray government, the highest it has ever got. Despite 2021 almost coming to an end, so far only Rs 7 crore has been received out of Rs 40 crore.
A lot of the conservation work of the Directorate is usually done in the villages. This creates temporary employment at the local level and provides work to rural laborers and artisans. But, for the last several months this type of work has stopped. Due to this even partial opportunities provided for livelihood have been lost.
Archaeology experts in the state believe that the work of conservation has been neglected as during the Covid period it got slotted as part of an ‘unproductive category’, in which the government does get any income but has to spend a part of revenues from other sources.
“Necessary funds will be made available for archaeology. It is true that there has been a delay in the process of recruitment of staff and conservation works, but all basic requirements will be given immediate priority” said Aditya Thackeray, the Maharashtra State Tourism Minister responding to the issue of shortage of funds for conserving heritage sites.
According to him as the lockdown is being relaxed, industries are starting up and the economic troubles of the state are going away. Work will start as soon as the economic cycle starts running normally.
At the same time, according to Tourism Minister it was not easy to raise funds for the archaeological conservation projects in the current situation. For this, he also holds the Narendra Modi government at the centre responsible to some extent, saying that the state has not yet received GST funds that are due to it.
In Maharashtra, the maximum number of vacancies are in five museums. The lack of adequate staff at heritage sites has raised questions about their protection and also the maintenance of important heritage sites. The lack of patrons in museums is also affecting the maintenance of antiquities as they were an important source of revenue.
Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Covid pandemic