March Issue 2014
Moenjodaro: Culture at a Cost
By Afia Salam | Published 10 years ago
It started after the brouhaha over Altaf Hussain’s suggestion of splitting Sindh into two parts: Sindh One and Sindh Two. Somewhere between the condemnations, strikes, retractions and explanations, along came Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who decided to throw down the gauntlet by co-opting one of the most recognised symbols of American pop culture, marrying it with the ajrak motif and launching a cultural counteroffensive to the Taliban, using Rs 250 million of the tax payer’s money in the name of the Sindh Festival.
Sindh’s culture of tolerance and acceptance, the softness woven through its multi-ethnic, multi-religious complexion, has never really been erased despite the strains of political conflict. However, things got messy when the historical site of Moenjodaro was selected as a physical backdrop to kickstart the festival.
The archaeological remains of Moenjodaro (Mound of the Dead) date back more than 5000 years and are one of the most recognisable historical sites in Sindh. However, their importance and value transcend provincial, as well as national borders, as they are on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, one of the six located in Pakistan. The other sites are the Makli necropolis, Gandhara civilisation remains in the Taxila valley, Rohtas Fort built by Sher Shah Suri, Takht-e-Bahi, Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Gardens.
Everyone who agreed with the need for an overt display of a culture that was vibrant, and diametrically opposed to what the Taliban and their extremist ilk were trying to impose on Pakistan, was excited about the Sindh Festival. However, it wasn’t until the first pictures of the stage being set atop the ruins of Moenjodaro appeared in the press that one realised that there was something terribly amiss.
It was clearly a case of doing something wrong, to achieve something right. People sensitive to the delicate nature of these archaeological ruins were horrified to see the erection of light towers, the construction of a huge stage, and the expected flood of visitors all of whic utterly disregarded the care with which these sites need to be managed.
If the idea was to drive home the need to pay attention to this world heritage site and perhaps attract the required funding for its conservation, it certainly did not materialise. What it did do was suddenly question Pakistan’s commitment to conservation.
The ardent defenders of the ceremony at Moenjodaro cite the post 18th Amendment devolution scenario as justification for having the authority to do so. However, they fail to mention the fact that Article 270A, sub-section 37, clearly places this within the concurrent list, so if anyone has a problem with the Federal Department of Archaeology having writ over these monuments, then they should first get the parliament of the country to change the status. Pakistan is the state party as far as UNESCO is concerned, so provincial cultural departments do not have any standing.
The assertion that the stage and other infrastructure for the ceremony, however temporary, was away from the actual ruins is also untrue. The Moenjodaro remains have an area of 555 acres, much of which still lies unexcavated for various reasons. The law does not allow for any development works within the vicinity. The Antiquities Act of 1975 clearly states that, “A protected immovable antiquity shall not be used for any purpose inconsistent with its character or for a purpose other than that directly related to its administration and preservation.”
Even Bilalwal’s father, former President Asif Ali Zardari’s attempts to build a road through the ruins were thwarted by the archaeology department on the strength of existing legislation. Maybe the aspiring young leader should have looked to his paternal grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who held an equally high profile function when he hosted the Shah of Iran, but the event was held on the lawns of the museum and not the ruins themselves.
One can’t help but be wary of the intentions and future actions of wannabe legislators when they launch their political careers by flouting the law. Let’s see if the questions being about the legality and the cost of the festival will elicit credible answers.
Encouraging tourism at historic sites is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it brings about a heightened awareness regarding the importance of cultural heritage, on the other, if it is not carefully regulated, large-scale visitation can damage the integrity of the very site that is being promoted.
Pakistan needs to promote its sites differently from industrially developed countries, where attention to conservation and maintenance have made the sites comparatively robust and less prone to damage from tourism.
Most of Pakistan’s heritage sites including the World Heritage Sites such as Moenjodaro and Makli are in a highly degraded and vulnerable state. During the past several years, the tussle for ownership between the Federal and Sindh governments has resulted in lack of conservation activity and inadequate safeguarding of the two sites. The lack of expertise and skilled workforce, coupled with climate change impact, has exacerbated the endangered condition of these sites.
There should be no bar on holding events for promotion of heritage assets as long as proper protocol is followed and approved activities are organised. Among the pre-requisites is the application of fool-proof protective measures in order that the core zone is not disturbed due to large-scale movement, activity or installations.
As the federal government is a signatory to the Convention for World Heritage Sites, their concurrence regarding the nature and location of public activity is essential, as is permission from the Sindh Culture Department as custodians, when any events are held at World Heritage Sites. Another fundamental requirement is the right of the public to stay informed regarding planned activities and the precautionary measures that have been put in place.
Where all of Pakistan’s limitless heritage reservoir has to be carefully safeguarded, that of global significance has to be provided protection with absolute scrupulousness and due diligence. It is incumbent on the custodians to work out plans of action not only for events but also for conservation and protection of the two World Heritage Sites for which Sindh Government is now responsible. Unless we are able to protect and preserve these priceless legacies, there will be little left for our next generations.”
— Yasmeen Lari,
Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.