Losing history

Published March 4, 2024

WHILE we have history strewn all over, the debate around pro-preservation development is not loud enough. Last week, Wapda entered into a Rs46.5m cultural preservation contract with a consultancy firm for the “digitisation and 3D modelling of significant rock carvings within the impact zone of the upcoming Diamer Basha dam”. It is no secret that northern Pakistan is a well of antiquity comprising innumerable rock carvings. Although the authority intends to devise a cultural heritage management plan to preserve prehistoric etchings, establish a museum, and encourage cultural tourism, experts believe that the dam’s construction may put thousands of ancient engravings in jeopardy. The volume of potential damage can be assessed by the vastness of heritage in the locality — over 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions from the Epipaleolithic era to Buddhist times lie along the banks of the Indus, with ibex and sheep imprinted on the earliest petroglyphs.

Past incidents of apathy provide sufficient reason for concern: for example, in 1999, GT Road’s expansion project destroyed two historic waterpower facilities and the connecting walls of Shalimar Gardens, while in 2020, WWF-Pakistan’s intense pressure forced the Gilgit-Baltistan government to abort jeep rallies and a polo fiesta at Rama in Astore. While Wapda’s is a heartening plan on paper, the fact remains that the culture and museum department in the territory is dormant. Clearly, authorities do not regret old lapses. Once again, short-sighted policies threaten priceless inheritance as perhaps only a few ancient boulders can be relocated to the Wapda office. Further, digitisation is not to be confused with investing in relics, and isolated samples impede tourism and research. The government has to change tack: it must become cognisant of the advantages of preservation, raise awareness about sites erased from state narratives and reimagine progress with a conservation method. The enforcement of the Antiquities Act, 1975, will ensure smugglers, vandals and imprudent planners face the law.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2024

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