Saturday, 2 July 2011

Khalsa Heritage Centre: A lost opportunity

With the Badal government setting the August 30 deadline to open the first phase of the much-delayed Rs 300-crore Khalsa Heritage Centre at Anandpur Sahib, there are serious concerns about the pitfalls of the politically expedient rush job on the prestigious project so far hobbled by bureaucratic mismanagement.

In a two-part series exclusively commissioned by Hindustan Times, George Jacob, the founding director of the centre, shines a light on what went wrong with the showpiece project on Sikh religion and history, and outlines the way forward.

QUO VADIS? With the project dragging into its 14th year, there have been announcements about phase 1 opening in August and phase 2 in December.These dates are fraught with lack of clarity on what these phases entail and a near absence of institutional planning beyond the impending rush to open
As the nation awaits the opening of the largest contemporary heritage centre ever conceived in independent India, an opportunity of a generation teeters on the brink of bureaucratic bungling and administrative apathy.

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal wielded incredible foresight marking the tercentenary of Khalsa in 1999 with the conception of a premiere international institute that celebrates the heroic and poignant saga of the Sikhs. The mission statement calls for immersing the visitor in an unparalleled exhibit experience of the living word of the Guru Granth Sahib grounded in humanistic universalism of an egalitarian social order. In 1499, Guru Nanak Dev founded a unique religious faith rooted in the core value of liberalism, a value that anchors the institutional vision. As is well known, the nine Gurus after him consolidated his teachings, further articulating Sikhism as a way of life. Two hundred years later at Anandpur Sahib on Baisakhi, the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, formally instituted the Khalsa Panth, a distinctive social order, committed to peace, equality and justice for all. Today, at this epoch-making site stands the majestic Gurdwara Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib, diametrically across the sprawling fortlike ramparts of the Khalsa Heritage Centre complex. MISSING THE DEADLINE With the project dragging into its 14th year, there have been recent announcements in the media about the phase 1 opening in August and phase 2 in December. These dates are fraught with several significant concerns, including lack of clarity on what these phases entail and a near absence of institutional planning beyond the preoccupation of an impending rush to open.

Phase 1, mistakenly being referred to as five 'petal' galleries, actually constitutes 15 galleries and exhibit areas.
The remaining 10 galleries of Phase 1 are being erroneously referred to as Phase 2. In fact, Phase 2 is an additional set of 10 galleries for which the content research has not even started and design work yet to be initiated, which would need to be followed by an exhibit production tender notification and an award process with a completion timeline well into 2014-15. It is deplorable for any initiative of such significance to meander aimlessly over an 18-year timeframe. It is also conspicuously problematic at various levels.

AREAS OF CONCERN First, the Anandpur Sahib Foundation ignored their own bonafide contract requirements with the designer that called for bringing on board a professional director in September 2007. Second, with transient bureaucracy unwilling to seek expertise, incapable of monitoring exhibit design and the farcical selection of amateur contractors who had no prior experience in handling projects of this scale, the project continues to suffer delays and cost overruns. Third, reluctance to delegate powers to the founding director invited on board in 2009 on a five-year contract and subsequently pressurised to stop work, ironically, while continuing to be on payrollperks, further undermines accountability and impedes the creation of a viable worldclass institution. Fourth, the myopic clamour to open five of the 25 galleries by this August, reflects rather poorly on the powers that be and will truncate the already frail linear storyline sequence of the exhibits.

Fifth, there seems to be little or no comprehension of the fact that as on date, there is no institutional policy or procedure in place, no organisation structure, no one to head critical departments such as finance and administration, operations and facilities, exhibits and events, education and outreach, marketing and corporate communications, library and special exhibit programmes, publications, research residencies and business services such as the cafetaria and heritage retail. With no director at the helm and all of these budgeted positions vacant, it is unthinkable that public pronouncements would be aired to have an opening of a mere 20% of the galleries (five out of the 25) in 60 days. Such a step would not only hurt sentiments of the people, who have patiently looked forward to the institution living up to its legendary adjective like ajooba attributing it to “the eighth wonder“ but also jeopardise the portrayal of Khalsa heritage, Sikh pride and mool maryada.

Lastly, there has never been a business model created to assess the sustainability of such a mammoth bank-loaned institute located in Anandpur Sahib with little tourism infrastructural planning, whose operating expenses alone could touch over Rs 20 crore annually.

FORESIGHT AND LEADERSHIP: It is time to look for a political foresight and invest in reinstating professional leadership to sidestep the bureaucracy-driven inertia, opportunism and short-term gains that have plagued this project of such national and international significance since its formative years. Perhaps, the answer to the institutional quo vadis (whither goest thou)...should have been in viaticus of monumentum quod fides (on a journey of faith and remembrance)....

(The writer, the founding director of the Khalsa Heritage Centre, is a well known India-born Canadian museum professional with experience in heritage planning, designing, establishing and leading museums and cultural institutions worldwide for the last 25 years.)

Hindustan Times, June 27th 2011


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