The Indian Cultural Precinct debate

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RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA and KIRA SPUCYS-TAHAR investigate Melbourne’s Indian Cultural Precinct consultation process and clear up a few misunderstandings

Indian cultural precinct

There has been much discussion in the community about the Victorian government’s proposed Indian Cultural Precinct.

Following three community consultations, Indian-origin Melbournians are drowning in debate over where the precinct should be located.

Should Dandenong win the vote, given it already has a Little India of sorts? Or should it be Wyndham, where the community is said to be growing the fastest? Or should it be at a central, city-based location, where it is equally accessible to all, and amenable to business and tourism endeavours?

Indian cultural precinct.Indian Link
As petitions are drawn up and written submissions are made, it appears that perhaps not everyone is fully cognisant of what the term ‘cultural precinct’ stands for.

Social researchers Schulz, Pepper and Gross* of the University of Wollongong, define a cultural precinct as “a clearly defined geographical area that contains facilities and services related to artistic and intellectual activity.”

Accordingly, a cultural precinct would include socio-cultural activities such as a library, regional art gallery, a museum or a performing arts centre, and economic activity such as shopping and dining. It would be a place for the community to congregate, as well as an economic driver for national and international tourism.

As such, an Indian cultural precinct in Melbourne would be a dynamic hub for cultural expression and civic life. What it would not be, is an enclave that separates Indian-Australians from others. It would generate a space or locale where mainstream Australians are encouraged to learn and interact with their first and second generation Indian Australian counterparts.

Lygon Street Little Italy Melbourne.Indian link
Lygon Street is known as Little Italy in Melbourne

Community stalwart Arun Sharma observes, “I think there is confusion between the terms ‘community centre’ and ‘cultural precinct’. While there is definitely a need for Indian community centres in Melbourne, I’m urging community members to look beyond that, in this case. A cultural precinct is not for the Indian community alone. It is not merely a spot where we will send our kids to learn aspects of our culture, or one where we will send our elderly for culturally-appropriate care. It is much more than this. It will be an area that symbolises India, but is for the use of all Australians and visitors to Australia.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the Cultural Precinct at last year’s Diwali celebration at Federation Square as part of an election pledge in the lead up to the State election that would put him in office. The announcement came as a welcome surprise to the Indian community not only in Melbourne, but across the country. Some seven months after taking office, Premier Andrews began the process of turning this into a reality by committing $500,000, and the establishment of an Indian Cultural Precinct Advisory Panel  that immediately set about consulting with the community as its first step.

Arun Sharma, head of Celebrate India, who has been instrumental in making Diwali not only a Melbourne-wide celebration but the biggest in the southern hemisphere, is part of the Advisory Panel.

Indian Cultural precinct locations.Indian Link

The Panel took the community consultation to the three centres Dandenong, Wyndham and City not because these are in competition to host the precinct, but because these are the spots where the community clusters. Their intent was to hear from as many members of our community as possible, and not to be parochial.

The make-up of the Panel has also come under scrutiny, with commentators claiming that a set number of the Panel members come from a certain suburb, and might therefore bias the final outcome.

When asked about this, Sharma’s only comment was, “An independent consultant has been appointed who will conduct a feasibility study and present the findings to the Panel. We will finalise the outcome and then present the findings to the Minister of Multicultural Affairs, who will take the final decision. Due process is being followed in this entire procedure.”

Chinatown Melbourne
Gates to Chinatown, Melbourne

Another issue of contention has been that $500,000 is not sufficient to build an entire precinct.

It is not known at this stage whether this is the entire amount allocated by the government towards the project, or whether it will follow up with more. By way of conjecture, perhaps it could be said that this is but seed money to get the idea off the ground. It will probably be earmarked for a landmark, such as the lofty gates at the start of Chinatown. Around this, the precinct could be allowed to grow organically.

The Panel is expected to submit its feedback to the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott, by October 2015.

The Victorian Government’s foresight to launch such projects via its Cultural Precincts and Community Infrastructure Fund, needs to be applauded. Perhaps other states in the nation need to follow suit if they are to emulate Victoria’s success stories with respect to multiculturalism. The Fund follows on from the success of the Cultural Precincts Enhancement Fund which saw the cultural precincts of the Greek, Italian and Chinese communities revitalised to the form that they take today.

Melbourne’s Greek Precinct is located in parts of Lonsdale and Russell streets in the CBD and is filled with restaurants and shops promoting the wares of Greece.

The Lygon Street Cultural Precinct in Carlton, the historic heartland of the Italian community in Melbourne, is filled with restaurants, theatres, libraries, cinemas and galleries.

The Chinatown Precinct around Little Bourke Street is replete with the feel of a whole host of Asian cultures.

In this scenario, the Indian Cultural Precinct will add tremendous value to Melbourne as the Diversity Capital of Australia.

It will be up to the Indian community to make it a thriving, booming hotspot. Given the inherent richness and vibrancy, the drive and energy, we have no doubts that they will live up to, indeed exceed, all expectations.

In fact, given the enthusiasm shown by the community in these months of consultation alone, perhaps we can make the recommendation that there should be more than one Indian cultural precinct in Melbourne.

Any takers for this suggestion?

* Rebekah Schulz, Matthew Pepper and Michael Gross (2012)
‘Performance measurement for cultural precinct development: a case for regionalism in local government.’ http://ro.uow.edu.au/buspapers/73/