NGOs, National Trusts, and Non-Profits-Oh My, India!

The end of July marks the end second month of my summer research on cultural conservation efforts in India. Over the past two months, I have built and expanded a database of local and international organizations that contribute to the preservation of the subcontinent’s built heritage. Driving this work is the desire to catalog the sheer number of actors in the Indian conservation space which, in the long-term, may help illuminate relationships between these actors.

This, I’ve discovered thus far, is no small task: according to official government counts, there are 19,220 culture and art NGOs formally registered in India, and beyond that, there are scores of other international trusts and non-profits operating within the country’s borders. With such expansive yet poorly categorized digital records at my fingertips, my challenge has not been finding information per se but finding enough hours in a day (or summer) to comb and catalog it into something comprehensible.

In pouring over these ledgers of registrations, however, I cannot help but make a few notable observations. First, the exceptional multiplicity of preservation projects is striking. While my expertise and this summer’s work mainly centers on India’s built environment, this research is opening my eyes to unique, unusual, and utterly fascinating conservation ventures: underwater archaeology that addresses shipwrecks in the Bay of Bengal, institutes that track tattooing practices of the Wancho, ecological conservation groups aiming for snake control in Assam, and many others.

Regardless of the idiosyncratic nature of some organizations, it is important to note that the sheer volume of NGOs, national trusts, and non-profits in the the Indian NGO space yields an undeniable redundancy that only further underscores India’s significant and sometimes puzzling levels of bureaucratic bloat. For instance, the small but mighty capital city of New Delhi has a shocking NGO density of nearly 62 arts/cultural organizations per square mile. In this archaeologically-rich slice of India’s Golden Triangle, certainly there is a poignant need for preservation. Still, I can’t help but ask: where is all that money going? Who all is it coming from? And why–after decades of conservation campaigns–do sites continue to be at such risk?

In my view, this database will not just allow us to approach such questions about India but will enable a broader snapshot of the highly global, highly connected market in which cultural heritage investments circulate. With this aerial view, I am interested in revisiting the question of “effective” heritage management and ultimately reconsidering which sites–or whose interests–preservation actually seeks to save versus destroy, shield versus sacrifice, prioritize versus trivialize.

For the time being, though, it is back to data-collection for me.

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About Kathryn Kalady Osowski

Kathryn "Kalady" Osowski is a second year M.A. student in the University of Pennsylvania's South Asia Studies department. Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she now works alongside Dr. Lynn Meskell in various projects to investigate the notable shift in archaeological site management in India over the past decade. Currently, Kalady is working to untangle and map the linkages between states' "soft" diplomacy efforts, neoliberal corporate/social initiatives, and transnational NGO work in South Asian conservation spaces. Some of her broader research interests include the commercialization, conservation, consumption of South Asian culture; India's thriving digital culture; the cycle of art looting; and the waste management in Bangladesh.