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A tale of two bridges

Published : Mar 17, 2001 00:00 IST

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More than a year after UNESCO took up the issue of threats to the monuments at Hampi in Karnataka, the controversy over the construction of two bridges across Tungabhadra river close to the historic town persists.

ONCE the centre of the medieval Vijayanagar empire, Hampi in Karnataka is among the 16 World Heritage Sites in India. In January 2000, the Paris-based World Heritage Committee (WHC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) threatened to strip Hampi of this status and list it as a site "in danger". The WHC and UNESCO were primarily concerned over the construction of two bridges across the Tungabhadra river on whose banks the mighty empire was founded. The deterior ation of monuments, encroachment of others by squatters, and various nefarious activities taking place at the more secluded structures were some of the other reasons given for the WHC action. UNESCO took the government of Karnataka and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to task and asked them to provide adequate protection as per the WHC guidelines (Frontline, March 3, 2000).

More than a year after UNESCO issued the warning, the spotlight has again fallen on the town. The two bridges have become the centre of a controversy that involves the local people, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, archaeologists and government depa rtments. The ASI and UNESCO are against completing the bridges. Experts and the local people, however, do not favour this idea. They hold the view that the bridges fulfil the need for a link between Hampi and Anegondi. They argue that demolishing the str uctures can cause greater damage to the monuments than their completion. The residents of Hampi have filed a public interest petition in the Karnataka High Court seeking the completion of the bridges. The Karnataka Ithihasa Academy has countered this wit h a petition that challenges the construction of the bridges. The Karnataka government has decided to stop all construction activity until the High Court gave its order. And Hampi remains entangled in a web of sorts as the Central government needs to uph old its agreement with UNESCO by protecting the monuments and the State government, which has spent close to Rs. 4 crores on the bridges, is not inclined to dismantle them. However, the State government realises that it will have to make an effort to pro tect the monuments if it were to retain Hampi's WHS status and remain a beneficiary of UNESCO's conservation methods and the World Bank's funds.

One of the bridges is a foot bridge, and the other is for vehicles. Besides linking Hampi and Anegondi, the bridges will connect Hampi to a State highway. The foot bridge, located beside the Virupaksha temple, falls within the declared 26 sq km protected area. As per the WHC norms for World Heritage Sites, governments need to get a High Court clearance for any new construction within this area. The larger bridge, the one for vehicles, also poses a threat to the monuments. One of the main and perhaps the first gateways into the historic town would have to be dismantled to accommodate a wider road. UNESCO says that development work, pollution and vibrations from vehicles will steadily destroy the 400-year-old monuments in the vicinity.

The move to stop the bridge construction has disappointed the local population, politicians, bureaucrats and a few scholars. According to them, the bridges will reduce the road distance between Hampi and Anegondi by 39 km. The present mode of transport t o cross the river is a coracle, made of coconut and banana fibres. When the river is in spate, crossing it is a dangerous proposition.

Professor S. Settar, historian and former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), says that Anegondi was the first capital of the empire and there had existed a bridge across the river during the 15th century. The people of the are a require a link. They do not deserve to be cut off, he says. Some farmers walk several kilometres in order to reach the highway to load their produce onto trucks. The residents of Anegondi take more than an hour to get to Hampi, which should take only 1 5 minutes with the availability of the new link.

Settar says that during the Hampi festival, Anegondi residents stand on the other side of the river and watch the celebrations. "These people are part of the land's culture and heritage and they do not deserve to be left out of development, just because some people in Bangalore decide what should be done," says Settar.

However, ASI officials and representatives of UNESCO and the International Commission for Protection of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) oppose any construction on or near the site. The ASI's Superintending Archaeologist at Bangalore, D. Jitendra Das, told < I>Frontline that the construction of the bridges would lead to the mushrooming of roadside shops and restaurants. Illegal construction by encroachers will bury historical evidence. Ongoing excavations continue to provide rich material on the empire.

Ever since the site has been declared as being "in danger", UNESCO has been sending its representatives to check on the progress of the construction and management of the site. A report with recommendations brought out by UNESCO states that any threat to the monuments must be removed. Halting the construction of the two bridges is one of the recommendations. According to the report, "both projects are illegal as they are within the gazetted protected area (which includes Anegondi and Virapapura Gada). I n addition, the footbridge project violates the living sacred status of the bathing ghat on the south bank of the river".

UNESCO agrees that the bridges are needed. The report, however, says that serious thought should have been given before identifying the location of the structures. In fact, the ICOMOS mission report says that there are ruins on the banks of the river tha t indicate the existence of a bridge in the past. "A sensible designer would have been inspired from these archaeological remains and come out with a different solution had they really wanted the bridge," says the report.

The UNESCO and ICOMOS reports say that the beauty of Hampi lies not only in the monuments but in its surroundings. Structures that do not blend with the environment will ruin its charm. Nearby Hospet is also a historically important town. However, it has become a victim of unplanned development. "The same fate awaits Hampi if it is not protected," say the reports.

"Hampi has the unique distinction of being treated as an endangered site because of its new bridges," said Settar. The objections raised by UNESCO carry no weight. "Just as the declaration of the Qutb Minar as a WHS does not entitle UNESCO to question ci vic projects in Delhi, it cannot claim a right to question developmental activities in the entire Hampi-Anegondi-Kamalapur area simply because it has accorded special status to a select group of monuments at Hampi," said Settar.

The government promises to tear down the bridges although 90 per cent of the work is completed. "Dismantling a bridge at this final stage is pointless," says Settar. "Rather than spend more of the tax-payers' money, they might as well find an alternative route from the main bridge in order to protect the monuments," he said.

The alternative route he suggested involved the revival of an ancient bypass road. After crossing the river from the Anegondi side through the bridge, traffic could be diverted to a road which skirted Nimbapura and joined the Kampili main road at Venkata pura. Settar said that the ancient route "is remarkable as not a single historical monument is encountered, nor a single pebble or stone is required to be tampered with or transported from the road."

When the WHC sent out its warning, the State government constituted a task force headed by the Additional Chief Secretary. According to Suryanath Kamat, president of the Ithihasa Academy, who was on the task force, the committee recommended that both bri dges be dismantled. When the report went before the Cabinet, he said, the bureaucrats decided that only the foot bridge would be dismantled. Work would continue on the larger bridge. Following this announcement, a public interest petition was filed on be half of the residents of Hampi. The petition contended that the foot bridge was a necessity and that it would not obstruct the view of the Virupaksha temple.

There is another aspect, and Kamat and the local residents perhaps agree on this. Once the larger bridge and a road are built, tourist resorts will burgeon in Anegondi. A part of Anegondi does not fall within the protected zone and therefore is not subje ct to UNESCO/WHC rules. According to Kamat, a local politician has already built a resort and is instrumental in pushing the bridge project through.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 17, 2001.)

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