Over two dozen heritage monuments and buildings, a recently amended archaeological act and the need for a public transport vis-à-vis Delhi metro. What will the government choose?
The question assumes importance after the recent announcement by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) about its proposed Central Secretariat-Kashmere Gate line.
The proposed line runs along a route that showcases more than two dozen-odd heritage monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and buildings including the World Heritage Site of Red Fort. The amendment in the archaeology law in March 2010, which bans any construction near protected heritage monuments, is likely to spark the heritage versus development debate once again.
The DMRC had submitted a detailed plan of the proposed alignment of the seven km long stretch to the ASI more than a month ago, "But we are yet to get any queries or objections from the ASI," said a senior DMRC officer.
In the proposed plan, DMRC claims it has tried to keep the track away from any heritage sites as much as possible.
"The corridor connecting Central Secretariat with Kashmere Gate will pass in the close vicinity of some heritage buildings including Jama Masjid, Lal Quila and Delhi Gate. But since the entire stretch is underground, we can lay the track without disturbing these sites," said Kumar Keshav, Delhi Metro's director (projects).
He, however, said that if the ASI has some objections or suggestions, the DMRC may make changes in the alignment plan. "We care for our heritage and will not undertake any construction at its cost. We are open to making some minor modifications in the plan, if at all required," Keshav added.
What is the ASI doing?
ASI director (monuments) AK Sinha said, "The entire project has to be examined keeping in view the locations/ distances and also the repercussions because of the provision of the amended Act. The superintending archaeologist (Delhi) has been asked to examine the proposal and offer his comments."
The Act that Sinha referred to is the Ancient Monuments and Ancient Sites and Remains (Amendment & Validation) Act 2010, which specifies a prohibited area of 100 metres around a protected monument in all directions.
ASI spokesperson Dr BR Mani says, "The amendment bans all construction activities in the prohibited area even by public bodies for public purposes, except for utilities. Even the government cannot do it."
Moreover, the amendment calls for the creation of a National Monument Authority (NMA), which will give permission for any construction after the competent authority from the concerned area weighs the proposal against monument-specific heritage byelaws and then forwards it to the NMA.
While the NMA is likely to be formed by mid-March, the heritage byelaws would take a long time.
Maintaining that since the entire stretch is underground, the DMRC can lay the entire track without disturbing any of the heritage sites, Keshav said the only heritage property that would be affected for the metro expansion is the Bahawalpur House in Mandi House—a small portion of this structure would be demolished.
The Bahawalpur House, the residential palace of the Maharaja of Bahawalpur, now houses the prestigious National School of Drama. It is not a protected heritage monument but figures in the list of notified heritage structures and buildings in the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) area.
Amal Allana from NSD confirmed, "We have received a letter for the same from the DMRC."
Keshav added, "A small portion of the Bahawalpur House would be demolished without disturbing the functioning of the existing property. After about two years, when the new metro station will be built at Mandi house, we will rebuild the demolished portion immediately without changing the architectural design of the heritage building."
But the NSD doesn't like this idea. "The DMRC wants to pull down a portion of this heritage building and wants some land for the expansion of the existing structure. How can they demolish a heritage building?" fumes Anuradha Kapur, director (NSD).
The NSD has already been working on a development plan for the institution. This development plan includes addition of an auditorium, restoring heritage buildings, classrooms, studio spaces, workshops, administration spaces, audio-visual spaces, wardrobe rooms and space for rehearsals.
"We have been working on the plan for the last three years and made these plans in consultation with heritage consultants, School of Planning and Architecture. This will put our plans in jeopardy if the DMRC dug up our place."
The NSD has now written to the DMRC and the Ministry of Culture.
Experts decry plan
Archaeologists and historians are aghast at the thought.
Nayanjot Lahiri, Professor of History at Delhi University, who is also an authority on historical archaeology of India, said, "They can't. It would be shocking if within a year of bringing in the legislation, the government itself goes against it."
"I am given to believe that (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi was behind this legislation getting through. The Congress government should not go against it," Lahiri said.
Moreover, she pointed out, there is no clarity on the exact alignment, where the line is going from, so it needs to come in public domain.