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No stone unturned

The Archaeological Survey of India’s job is to protect heritage monuments. But it’s doing a great job of destroying that very legacy, says Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2010 21:54 IST

How has the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) been protecting the thousands of monuments in its charge? Has it acted as the institutional guardian of our heritage? Or has it actively facilitated development work, of the kind that has resulted in the disappearance of some of India’s protected monuments? While the ravaged monuments that can be commonly encountered across India tell their own story, till recently, I believed that this sorry state was either due to the fact that the conservation undertaken by the ASI in recent years was poor, or because the ASI did not have adequate powers to evict squatters and encroachers. Now, however, there is a new twist to that old story.

The ASI has also, it seems, proactively broken the very law by which it is supposed to protect monuments and archaeological sites. At least, this is what the judgement of the High Court of Delhi has so shockingly revealed. Delivered on October 30 by Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice S. Muralidhar, the judgement concerns a dispute around a property in the residential colony of New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, where Humayun’s tomb is located. The genesis of the dispute lies in a 1992 notification of the Central government, where areas up to 100 metres and areas up to 200 metres near or adjoining protected monuments, as is the case with Humayun’s tomb, were declared to be prohibited and regulated areas respectively.

The idea of designating these zones was to ensure better preservation and access by preventing new construction in the vicinity of monuments, and forms part of the 1959 rules that are related to the 1958 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act. In fact, as far as regulations go, the 100 metres line around protected monuments is inviolable, and the ASI does not have the powers to relax it. Naturally, the HC asked the ASI to follow its own rules in dealing with the Nizamuddin property, which falls within the 100 metres prohibited zone surrounding Humayun’s tomb. But the reason why the HC directed the ASI to do this is because, in the course of hearing this matter, it unearthed an ingenious mechanism through which that organisation had repeatedly broken the law that’s supposed to govern its functioning.

Apparently, in 2006, the Director-General of the ASI prepared a note at the behest of the Minister of Tourism and Culture, for constituting a committee to advise the D-G in giving permission “for renovation/reconstruction in the prohibited areas” of protected monuments. For several years afterwards, from 2006 to 2009, such permissions were granted, through an Advisory Committee that was specially constituted for this purpose. It is nobody’s case that the law regarding monuments does not require rationalisation and amplification. It is just that if the ASI planned to change the law under which it protects monuments, there should have been public consultations. Not only was this not done, no notification for setting up this Advisory Committee was published, nor were any guidelines for its functioning adopted.

The HC judgement explicitly highlights that it is a matter of “grave concern” that “the Committee of the ASI, which has no legal basis for its functioning, has been examining applications and granting permissions for constructions within 100 m of the protected monuments…without any guidelines whatsoever.” Significantly, as the High Court pointed out, this Committee granted permissions for new construction within the prohibited area and not merely for renovations/reconstructions. In any case, as things stand, in our country, getting approvals on file is all that is required to alter the law of the land.
What’s distressing is that this illegality compromised scores of monuments, and the character of the landscape around them — from the Currency Building in Kolkata to the Mahakali caves in Maharashtra. Thanks to this, structures have been constructed within less than 10 metres of protected monuments. For instance, the elevated road on Barapullah Nullah in New Delhi will pass within 5 metres of the Mughal period Bara Pulah bridge and within 105 metres of the tomb of Khan-i-Khana. The road is meant to connect the Commonwealth Games Village with the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. A senior urban planner, who was member of the Advisory Committee, had pointed out that it was too close to the Bara Pulah bridge, and would endanger it. He had suggested that the government should explore an alternative alignment. This advice was rejected by the ASI and instead, it gave the green signal to a road which, for a two-week event, has permanently compromised a nearly 400-year-old bridge.

Along with medieval monuments, the ASI has also compromised protected structures, of more recent date, which have an iconic significance since they are linked with our greatest leaders. For instance, a building that was illegally constructed some 24 metres near the house where Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar, was given the seal of approval. What makes the Porbandar case so gross is that permission was sought by the owner for a house that was already built, and the ASI was ‘advised’ that it give ex post-facto permission for that illegal construction! And the speed and efficiency with which the ASI has acted in considering such cases takes one’s breath away.

From 2006 till 2009, there have been 23 meetings in which power projects and barrage proposals, multi-storeyed commercial
projects and residential properties have been considered. Why this efficiency seems somewhat suspect is because ASI committees usually meet rather infrequently. The Central Advisory Board of Archaeology, set up in 1945 with the intention of associating scholars and institutions in India with the activities of the ASI, has recently held only its 34th meeting. Evidently, unlike the Expert Advisory Committee of 2006, the older Advisory Board provides little collateral benefit. How can India’s heritage be protected from the ASI is what the HC judgement seems to ask. If the acts and rules that are supposed to protect India’s national heritage are so easily circumvented, in future there may be very little left to restore and conserve.

Nayanjot Lahiri is a member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission

The views expressed by the author are personal