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Bridging a divide

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

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With UNESCO clearing the resumption of the construction of a bridge across the Tungabhadra near the historical town of Hampi in Karnataka, a long-standing demand of the local population is set to be met.

in Hampi

A LONG-STANDING conflict between the local communities and the Government of Karnataka over the location of a bridge in close proximity to the ruins of the medieval Vijayanagar empire in Hampi appears to have been resolved with a team from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) giving provisional clearance for the resumption of work on the bridge.

This is a major victory for the residents of the area and a setback for the group that had stopped the construction of the bridge on the grounds that it would threaten the visual and structural integrity of the monuments. The group of monuments at Hampi was included in the World Heritage list in 1986. In 1999 a decision was taken to put the site on the `World Heritage in Danger' list owing to the partial construction of two bridges in its vicinity (Frontline, March 3, 2000). The UNESCO team, headed by Minja Yang, Deputy Director at UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, which visited Hampi in May 2003, promised to make a strong case for the resumption of work on the Talavaraghatta bridge, at the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) to be held in Paris in late June.

However, work on the bridge will be allowed to commence only after the State government meets certain conditions laid down by the UNESCO team. First, the construction of a bypass must precede it. The bypass must be designed to divert heavy vehicular traffic around, rather than through, the Aresankara Gateway, which was the gateway to the old city of Hampi and through which traffic moves even today. The second condition is that the Talavaraghatta bridge must be seen as a temporary solution to the infrastructure needs of the area. Yang made it clear that in the long run the State government would have to relocate the bridge to a place where it would not impact visually or structurally on the heritage site. "We believe that the preservation of heritage must be integrated into the larger regional development plan," Yang told a large gathering of leading citizens in Anegundi, on the northern bank of the Tungabhadra river.

The demand for a bridge across the river that will connect Hampi and Anegundi has been a long-standing one (Frontline, March 30, 2001). Such a bridge will shorten the distance between the two centres by almost 40 km, and will not only facilitate the movement of people and commodities but also encourage tourist traffic to Anegundi, a historical and religious centre in its own right. When the WHC decided to put the Hampi group of monuments on the list of `World Heritage in Danger' sites in 1999, the State government, worried that Hampi might be de-listed as a World Heritage Site, took immediate and drastic corrective measures. It first dismantled a footbridge near the Virupaksha temple and then stopped the construction of the Talavaraghatta bridge. This provoked a groundswell of popular resentment against UNESCO for what was seen as interference in the development agenda of the region, and the State government for succumbing to pressure from the anti-bridge lobby.

Amare Gowda, taluk panchayat president, Gangavati, told Frontline: "We are quite happy with a bypass, but we need the bridge, which will reduce the distance from Anegundi to Hospet to 15 km from the current 52 km. Our banana markets are in Hospet, the sugarcane factories are there, and we also want tourists to come to Anegundi."

For the people of Hospet and Anegundi, the issue is not one of development versus heritage. Indeed, these two are not viewed as being mutually exclusive. Several of the memoranda submitted by local organisations to the UNESCO team reflect this sentiment. While there is an across-the-board agreement that the bridge must come up, there is also a recognition of the need to ensure that the monuments are not damaged in any way.

Several interest groups from Hospet, Hampi and Anegundi met the UNESCO team. They were impressed by the team's constructive approach towards finding a solution to the problem. Sriranga Rajalu, MLA from Gangavati and an active campaigner for the construction of the bridge, said: "Before construction began, permission was taken from both the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the State Department of Archaeology." He added: "Whatever happens here is quickly communicated to the authorities concerned at UNESCO. We had to take some measures to prevent a part of the bridge from collapsing. Some people immediately sent letters to UNESCO saying that work on the bridge had recommenced."

Yang told Frontline that she had received representations from "certain NGOs" (non-governmental organisations) which claimed that work on the bridge had resumed. She added that her visit to the site revealed that the claim was not true. According to local residents, the anti-bridge campaign was supported by a group of hotel owners in Hospet who fear that a bridge that opens Anegundi to tourist traffic would affect their business. The real opposition, however, appears to have come from a small group of historians and intellectuals who argue that the bridge would threaten the heritage value of the site. Although there has been strong and reasoned opinion by experts in the State against many of these fears, and several constructive suggestions have been made by them on how the threat of damage to the monuments could be eliminated, the views of the anti-bridge lobby carried the day with the WHC.

Indeed, location-wise the present spot is considered ideal as the bridge crosses the river at its narrowest and deepest point, and is in fact on the medieval route to the city of Hampi. The road between Hospet and Anegundi through the Talavaraghatta gateway lies along the natural contours of this rugged, rocky terrain.

S. Settar, former Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research and an expert on the history of Vijayanagar, feels that the choice of the location is justified. He said: "Five years ago, I would not have approved the design. The government at that time did not consult heritage experts. But for good or bad, the bridge is there, and there are two compelling reasons why we should not dismantle it. First, there is the human and socio-economic compulsion. The people of the region have wanted this bridge for the past half a century. Rs.4 crores has already been spent on the bridge, and it will cost another Rs.2 crores to dismantle it. Secondly, I do not agree that the bridge is a threat to the monuments. It certainly does not affect the skyline as the bridge is in a valley and is not visible from the monuments. The bridge is one kilometre away from the Vitthala complex. There are ways of eliminating the damage to the Aresankara gate, which is a modest and minor monument in the complex."

Settar had suggested the construction of a bypass around the Aresankara gateway several years ago. He feels that the bypass, which will pass through government land, can be constructed within the next three months if the government is serious about it, and the bridge can be completed before the next Hampi festival. "I am happy that the present UNESCO team has come to the conclusion it has. After all, why should UNESCO go into the details of the development activity in the region? Suggestions are always welcome, but if it interferes in local development affairs on the basis of hearsay, that will only have nuisance value and will alienate local sentiments. After all, it is the people of the region who have safeguarded this precious piece of heritage for the last 400 years," Settar said.

The high-profile visit of the UNESCO team highlighted the enormous importance given by the Central and State governments to retaining the status of Hampi as a World Heritage Site. The construction of the bypass will not take Hampi off the list of `World Heritage in Danger' sites. "It will go off the list only after the Hampi World Heritage Management and Development Authority makes viable the management and development Plan and implements it fully," Yang said. This gives UNESCO an even larger role in local development priorities, one that is by no means defined clearly.

It is anybody's guess how long the bypass will take to be constructed. The people of Hampi, it appears, still have a long wait before their dream of a bridge is realised.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 06, 2003.)

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