Insights into Editorial: Why monuments would be worse off without the World Heritage status
The UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972 aims to protect cultural and natural heritage, through preservation of monuments, buildings and national parks and even cities, among others. So far, 192 countries including India have ratified the convention.
What you need to know about the World Heritage List?
- The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Programme administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 UNESCO member states which are elected by the General Assembly.
- Each World Heritage Site remains part of the legal territory of the state wherein the site is located and UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.
- There are presently 1,052 World Heritage sites in 165 countries, of which 814 are cultural sites, 203 natural and 35 mixed; 55 more properties are on the “in danger” list.
- Italy is home to the greatest number of World Heritage Sites. Europe and North America are home to nearly half of all World Heritage sites.
How are they selected?
Until the end of 2004, there were six criteria for cultural heritage and four criteria for natural heritage. In 2005, this was modified so that there is only one set of ten criteria. Nominated sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten criteria.
- Represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and cultural significance.
- Exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design.
- To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.
- Is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.
- Is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.
- Is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.
- Contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.
- Is an outstanding example representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.
- Is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals.
- Contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
Countries will have to identify sites they want considered for the World Heritage status, and this has led to criticism that some properties of real cultural or natural significance may be ignored. A country will have to first put its prospective sites on the tentative list and then decide which of those it wants to nominate for inclusion on the World Heritage list.
Once a site is inscribed on the World Heritage list, it has to follow the monitoring guildelines of the WHC. All countries will have to mandatorily submit a report to the WHC on their sites every six years, and the WHC assesses them. If a site faces threats to its conservation and the threats are not addressed, the WHC could put it on the list of sites in danger. Only after the country has done enough will the site be taken off the list.
Benefits of World Heritage Status:
- The sites on the list serve as a magnet for international cooperation may thus receive financial assistance for heritage conservation projects from a variety of sources including private funding.
- The status adds cachet to the site.
- Leads to increase in tourism.
- Helps in regular monitoring of the sites.
- Puts pressure on governments through fear of delisting the sites.
- It provides an opportunity to share the international expertise in the field of conservation.
- World Heritage Status does not necessarily mean more funding. Between 1983 and 2008, India received less than a million dollars from the WHC in financial assistance. Since 2008, India has not sought any funds. For 2016-2017, the World Heritage Fund has $5.9 million at its disposal, an insignificant sum given the large number of properties vying for it.
- Sometimes, rise in tourism may be counterproductive to conservation efforts.
- The fear of delisting may not be sufficient to get governments act sometimes.
- The convention has not been effective in protecting the sites in conflict zones. For instance, The WHC has come in for criticism for failing to protect sites like the Bamiyan Valley in Afganistan, where Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and the remains of the historical cities of Palmyra in Syria and Hatra in Iraq, both of which were damaged by the Islamic State terrorist group.
World Heritage Sites in India:
- India, which ratified the Convention in 1977, has 27 cultural World Heritage sites, seven natural sites and one mixed site.
- Among the cultural properties are the Taj Mahal, the monuments of Hampi, the churches and convents of Goa, Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar and the Mountain Railways of India, which include the Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and Kalka-Shimla railway networks.
- Natural sites include the Sundarbans in West Bengal, the Kaziranga and Manas National Parks in Assam, and the Western Ghats.
- Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park, which was included this year, is the sole mixed site.
- India has the sixth largest number of World Heritage sites.
It is time for the governments to put in place some preventive measures to balance various aspects associated. These include limiting the tourist flows and visiting hours. The WHC can do little more than nudge and perhaps issue rebukes to negligent countries, but governments conscious of their global reputation are likely to protect, if not all sites, at least those on the World Heritage list. To this end, having the status is a lot better for a country’s cultural and natural heritage than otherwise, but this is far from enough if the WHC’s objectives are to be met in earnest.