Author : Yookta Ahuja

Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jun 27, 2024

Digitising built heritage can help foster greater public engagement and awareness and lead to effective preservation and restoration.

Digitising urban heritage conservation in India

Source Image: Novatr

Public engagement with heritage sites is imperative for cultural preservation. It also has a positive mental health impact on residents. Besides generating a cultural economy by creating entrepreneurial opportunities, public engagement with heritage creates spaces of leisure, inspiration and belonging in stressful urban settings. Given that rapid urban development often comes at the cost of heritage, digitising built heritage fosters greater public engagement and awareness and leads to effective preservation and restoration. 

Public engagement with heritage sites is imperative for cultural preservation. It also has a positive mental health impact on residents.

Morphological modelling, early warning systems, archiving through database models using tools like Heritage Building Information Modelling (H-BIM), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Light Detection, and Ranging (LiDAR) and digital twins are increasingly helping countries across the world to conserve their urban built heritage with improved public participation.

Indian context and challenges 

A recent NITI Aayog report cites 3,691 monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), 5,000-plus under state governments, and places of religious importance under endowments and trusts. However, this database does not account for many of India’s urban heritage sites spread across 60 historic cities, averaging around 500 structures per city. It also excludes around 80,000 structures in the rural and tribal settlements, clubbed under the ‘Cultural Landscape’ category. 

A recent NITI Aayog report cites 3,691 monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), 5,000-plus under state governments, and places of religious importance under endowments and trusts.

Non-governmental Organisations and government bodies such as the ASI, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA), and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) are the primary contributors to documenting heritage structures in India. However, this collective effort faces significant capacity constraints, from a shortage of a skilled workforce to inadequate funding. 

Global digital conservation practices

Italy, China, and Spain are among the leaders in research on the digital preservation of built heritage. Italy was one of the first countries to test an AR simulation of a block in Cagliari in 2014. China has established the world’s largest cultural heritage conservation system using 3D-GIS visibility analysis to identify hurdles in three scenarios for the Chiang Mai heritage site: i) the actual condition scenario (ACS), ii) the land use scenario (LUS) with the land use ordinance, and iii) the proposed scenario (PPS) incorporating mountain skyline protection. It also deployed Re3D LiDAR and multi-tech collaboration to improve conservation processes. The Shanghai Federation of Literary and Art Circles (SFLAC) developed a digital platform for managing tools and raw data, further simplifying the process. Japan’s Society 5.0 model aims to build a digital twin for every societal heritage element, with reimagined structural business design and development through a “highly integrated system of cyberspace and physical space.” 

A study of Cortijo del Fraile in Njar, Almera, Spain, used a combination of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photogrammetry with terrestrial laser scanners (TLS) for data collection and H-BIM for the structural analysis, visualisation, and documentation of the site’s ancient structures. Conservation efforts for archaeological sites and historic structures, like the Masonry towers of Tuscany, Italy, relied on The Internet of Things (IoT) and Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) for continuous structural health monitoring. Measures at Italy’s Sassi landscape also used IoT and WSN for accurate simulation and prediction to mitigate the threat posed by high visitor volumes and improve the capacity for priority restoration.

The Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME) and Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) use remote sensing for the geodatabase archiving of physically inaccessible areas. Jordan, like India, faces the challenge of increasing urbanisation damaging their cultural heritage. Jordan is amalgamating multiple databases like the APAAME and EAMENA to implement its heritage protection laws. A 2020 study of Jordan’s digital interventions for conservation highlights the importance of creating a central geo-referencing system and why clarifying goals and end users for digital technologies is crucial at the early planning stage.  

Urban heritage conservation in India

Projects involving public participation and GIS mapping have existed in India for over two decades. In 2002, residents of Pathra village in West Bengal’s West Midnapur district approached IIT Kharagpur, seeking help to preserve a cluster of Hindu and Jain temples. This effort led to the pilot ‘Regional Mapping of Heritage Structures: Community Based Participatory Approach and GIS’ to prepare a digital inventory and restore 350 heritage structures with funding of INR 2 million from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MoHRD). 

The Ministry of Culture (MoC) also developed JATAN, a virtual museum builder with a geographic information system (GIS) data collator and AI language translator for ten museums in the country. The ASI collaborated with CyARK to preserve the Gateway of India. Rajasthan and Gujarat are developing virtual tours under Rajdharaa, a three-phase 3D-GIS documentation project of heritage sites and museums. The Ministry of Tourism also partnered with Google for Incredible India to create virtual walk-throughs of famous historical places. Institutes like CEPT University are developing training modules for archiving and devising preventative measures during disasters. 

Re-construction methods based on recording tech are in the early stages of implementation in Gujarat. A pilot project in Surat explored integrating tangible and intangible heritage using HBIM and VR through digital storytelling, compiling intangible assets like oral traditions, social practices, and food from journal articles with laser scans of two monuments in the English Cemetery. The audio files and text were then integrated with the digital model and exported to a VR headset. 

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTCI), Tata Trusts, and ASI collaborated to restore Delhi’s Humayun Tomb and Nizamuddin Basti. The project engaged local artisans, covered 45 monuments, created 150 acres of ecological green space, and impacted a population of 15,000 with primary socio-economic development measures. Every house and stone was 3D mapped and uploaded to a GIS database. These interventions led to a 1,000 percent increase in footfall for Humayun’s Tomb. 

However, with a standardised approach and a national action plan, the use of digital technologies for heritage conservation remains sporadic in India. A big opportunity came with the introduction of the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) programme in 2015. Implemented from 2015 to 2019, HRIDAY aimed to undertake strategic and planned development of heritage sites in the 12 cities of Ajmer, Amravati, Amritsar, Badami, Dwarka, Gaya, Kanchipuram, Mathura, Puri, Varanasi, Velankanni, and Warangal, primarily focusing on improved sanitation, security, tourism, heritage revitalisation and livelihoods retaining the cultural identity. 

However, with a standardised approach and a national action plan, the use of digital technologies for heritage conservation remains sporadic in India.

HRIDAY’s impact was restricted because of poor inter-departmental collaboration, conflicting central and local government priorities, lack of institutional arrangement and due diligence, irrational timelines, and high cost and time overruns. The scheme’s guidelines were mainly recommendatory, without an empowered enforcement mandate. These constraints led to quick fixes without considering the crucial local and traditional crafts for restoration works, giving “incidental and largely unplanned” benefits. HRIDAY’s guidelines’ focus on tourism led to an overemphasis on physical restoration without charting an action plan for the essential digital aspects of documentation, verification, capacity building, and management of the identified sites. 

The way forward

India’s HRIDAY experience shows an inherent tendency for physical restoration to increase tourism while neglecting people’s participation and the immense potential of digital technologies for sustained preservation. There is a dire need to analyse the role as well as the path to improved public participation in urban heritage conservation and renewal in India. 

Any new national-level efforts like HRIDAY must prioritise solving the foundational challenges like documentation and verification of urban heritage structures. Master plans for conservation projects should incorporate digitisation models as a primary pillar. Additionally, there is a need to specify stakeholders, goals, and end users of all projects, with clear delineation between tourist/commercial versus preventative restoration, which would require different digital interventions. Clarity of mandates for all stakeholders will mitigate unnecessary delays onsite. Collaboration with private agencies and partners for conservation projects will increase the speed of execution while creating opportunities for small and medium enterprises. 

Yookta Ahuja is a Research Intern at the Observer Research Foundation.

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