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Our heritage suffers a huge deficit

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has the responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of all monuments and archaeological sites notified by the Government of India as a protected monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958. Some of the states have also enacted similar legislation and notified monuments and archaeological sites under the Acts. It is quite imperative to protect and redeem the lesser known monuments, many of which are lying in derelict state at present all over the country. All this would be fine if each state puts in place a Heritage Act and lists in it all heritage sites that need to be protected. A broader outlook needed for heritage preservation in India in general and in Metro cities in particular. It is a herculean task to protect such heritage structures in the Metros.  FSI should not come in the way to cause damage to heritage structures in the city.

Unfortunately, those who own such properties are not aware of the heritage in their possession and often consider it to be a hindrance to progress. It is on this opinion that we have much to say. If we are to go by this, most buildings that we would consider to be of heritage value would have to be demolished. Yet, the very age of the buildings would make it qualify for protection, as it represents an era that has gone by. Secondly, does every structure that merits protection need to necessarily have sculptures, inscriptions or unique artistic interest. We do not hold a brief for the concerned heritage in the list for demolition. The Court has ruled and it is time to make up our mind if such a structure is demolished. Similarly, there is a need for immediate necessity passing of a Heritage Act.  This should be followed up with a listing of heritage structures across the city, grading them on the basis of their importance and affording them the protection of that basis. There are well-established norms for this and we do not have to re-invent the wheel. The role of the citizen is manifold and must play a pivotal role and for that public-private partnership is the need for the hour to draft a plan and see that how that is implemented without causing damage to heritage buildings. The suggestions, opinions and concerns can be considered through a voice vote or through opinion polls in the media.

India’s monumental heritage is on the brink of a shameful shift. The Central government is poised to introduce an amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, in Parliament, which would remove the security net that exists around our nationally protected monuments. The track record of the government in maintaining our nationally protected monuments, to put it most charitably, is an indifferent one. It is time to have a better understanding and list out the importance of monuments in a better way. A better council should prevail for the upkeep and maintenance of monuments of archaeological importance.

We find that there are encroachments by government agencies and individuals. This meant that more than two-thirds of India’s monuments that the Central government is supposed to protect were poorly guarded. At the same time, the CAG pointed to connivance by ASI officials as well. As the files of the ASI reveal, there are also numerous instances where politicians have proactively protected those who have illegally occupied the prohibited zone around monuments. As a consequence of this statute, the National Monuments Authority was set up. It is shocking that even after these years, a major task of this authority remains to be done, that of preparing heritage bye-laws for nationally protected monuments.

Incidentally, the Cabinet note shows that the Ministry of Culture, instead of protecting monuments, is now acting a clearinghouse for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Metro, monorail and expansion of local railway line all put pressure on these monuments of national importance. The amendment is necessary, the Cabinet note states, because, among other things, an elevated road needs to be built in front of Akbar’s tomb in Agra! Taj Mahal is facing environmental dangers. Recently, as winds with the velocity of over 130 km per hour swept Agra, a minaret at the entry gate of the Taj Mahal collapsed late on Wednesday night. The 12-feet metal pillar at the entry gate referred to as Darwaza-e-Rauza, crashed just past midnight. According to reports, a minaret south gate fell off, while a small white dome was hit too. Sources said that the main monument was also affected during that 40-minute long rainfall in the region.

Qutub Minar after a major stampede accident lost its natural surroundings and people were not allowed to go up and watch Delhi through Mehrauli. Samaritans and the Ministry of Culture should do a world of good and cultural protection is the need of the hour. India’s monuments form an irreplaceable archive of our civilisational heritage. Our pride in our heritage has always been surplus while caring for that heritage suffers a huge deficit. Surely, India’s archaeological heritage, as diverse and priceless as our natural heritage, seventy years after Independence, deserves better than what has fallen to its lot.

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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