Linking People and Heritage: Lessons from Community Engagement Initiatives in India

Publication Type:

Book Chapters


Heritage, Conservation and Communities: Engagement, Participation and Capacity Building. Heritiage, Culture and Identity, Routledge, New York, p.213-225 (2017)





This paper is explorative and reflexive - it describes two community engagement initiatives based in India and the learning from both, Nakshay, where communities map their heritage ( and Neighbourhood Diaires, stories and histories of neighbourhoods ( Both are personal initiatives that aim to address the questions ‘what do people value’ and ‘how does one engage communities in a meaningful dialogue on heritage and its conservation’. In turn, the two questions arose out of a dilemma I face as a heritage practitioner, an expert with over a decade of conservation experience, with respect to resident communities/ local people. I call this dilemma the ‘conservation conundrum’ as it puts in me in situations where I’m supposed to simultaneously understand what people value and also educate them on what to value and how. Having faced such situations on numerous occasions, I decided to trace a chronology of this conundrum through a review of literature under four broad questions / themes - Why must conservation practice and the heritage discipline engage with people including resident communities? Second, if conservation needs to engage with people, why does the preservationist approach persist in the country, especially since it seems to marginalize resident communities? Third, is the issue one of not knowing how to truly engage people or resident communities i.e. is it an operational issue? Finally, what are the positions of resident communities about the cultural heritage site in their midst that has impacted or will impact their lives at some point? Do they value the cultural heritage site? How do they value it? If not what do they value? In this paper I limit myself to the third question as I explore the other three elsewhere. I hope my attempt begins to address a gap on not just how to engage with people but also make a case against universal solutions to address the ‘how to’. Rather, through the paper, I aim to indicate a need for a nuanced and context based understanding of cultural heritage places and people / communities who are entangled in them. I commence the paper by presenting a summary of Nakshay and Neighbourhood Diaries, including a couple of case studies from both. I then discuss the challenges in engaging people in a dialogue on heritage and its conservation based on the two initiatives and go on to discuss methodologies before pointing to what local people value