Saving the Taj Mahal

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

The Mayawati government almost puts the Taj Mahal in peril by allowing a Taj heritage corridor project on the banks of the Yamuna, before backing out on intervention by Union Minister for Culture Jagmohan.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in Agra and New Delhi Photographs: V.V. KRISHNAN

THE marble monument to love that the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built in the 17th century for his queen Mumtaz Mahal has been saved from peril - at least for now. Visions of an `Appu Ghar' (children's amusement park), a water park, shopping complexes and eateries coming up right next to the Taj Mahal in Agra, on the tranquil banks of the Yamuna, have faded. Concerned over the moves, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had threatened to remove the Taj from its list of World Heritage Sites.

One shocking aspect was that none of the agencies of the government concerned with culture, heritage or the environment had cleared the plans. On the contrary, these agencies had pointed out that the plans did not take into account the safety of the monument. Yet, the Mayawati-led government of Uttar Pradesh went ahead with the plans. It released a large sum of money to a handpicked agency as an advance payment for the work.

The Taj Heritage Corridor Project was so named as to camouflage its commercial thrust. But it was marked by bureaucratic apathy and indifference. It was also a tale of greed and corruption.

The project took off in November 2002, as a part of what apparently was a plan to green the banks of the Yamuna. It sought to create a corridor between the Agra Fort, another World Heritage Site, and the Taj Mahal, linking in the process other monuments such as Ram Bagh, Etmatuddaula and Chinni-ka-Roza. The corridor would have facilitated a visit to all these monuments in one go, and hence the Taj Mission Management Board gave its approval for the project in November. Following this, it was cleared by the State government's expenditure finance committee, which sanctioned Rs.175 crores. The game had begun.

Without floating tenders, the Uttar Pradesh government awarded the work to the National Projects Construction Corporation (NPCC), a Government of India undertaking functioning under the administrative control of the Ministry of Water Resources. The NPCC subcontracted the work, again without inviting tenders, to Ishvakoo India Pvt. Ltd., which was entrusted with the task of filling up the riverbed for the construction. The U.P. government released Rs.17 crores to the NPCC for the preparation of a detailed project report. Of this, Rs.13 crores was in the form of an advance payment. Another Rs.20 crores that was sanctioned has been withheld.

The project report prepared by the NPCC recommended not only the greening of the riverbank but also the commercial ventures. The filling up of the riverbed and the construction of a wall for this purpose had begun. A 2-km stretch of the riverbed was filled up and a five-foot (1.5 metre) wall, roughly 1,500 metres long, built from the Ram Bagh side to the Taj Mahal along the river. Once it was revealed that proper sanctions had not been obtained for the project, the work was stopped, thanks to the intervention of Union Culture Minister Jagmohan.

The flouting of norms by the State government is all the more shocking because the Taj is a World Heritage Site. Let alone listening to UNESCO, the U.P. government did not pay heed even to the objections of the national agencies. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which constituted an expert committee to study the project, discussed the feasibility of the project on April 24 and 25. The expert committee, which had representatives from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the CPCB, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Central Water Commission, rejected it on various grounds. The committee's report should have been an eye-opener.

The committee invited the NPCC also to present its views at a meeting on April 24. It was requested to appear on April 25 to answer certain queries raised by members and explain how the project report was prepared. But the NPCC chose not to be part of the process. After studying the NPCC's detailed project report, the expert committee came to the conclusion that "the project... appears to be a product of great hurry and prepared without any adequate study and consideration".

The experts raised questions about the selection of the site - along the Yamuna between the Agra Fort and the Taj. The NPCC had in its report justified the choice of the site thus: "No free land is available on the existing bank of river Yamuna for development of any facilities and all the areas are nearly on perpetual lease or otherwise in occupation. Hence the whole project is proposed to be developed on the banks of theYamuna, mostly reclaimed, without adversely affecting the character and ecology of Yamuna and avoiding any land acquisition or displacement of public or property." The committee, however, noted: "No evidence of study on the land or land use, no details of the occupation of this land have been provided. There does not seem any paucity of land. In view of this, the committee members did not appreciate the need for reclamation of land from the bed of the river as there is plenty of land available for greening as ordered by the Hon'ble Supreme Court." The experts rejected the NPCC's contention that the project would not affect the character of the region's ecology, pointing out that "no study on the ecology of the river or the impact on the ecology have been provided... and the claim is wholly unfounded".

The experts noted that out of the six monuments proposed to be linked by the corridor, two (the Agra Fort and the Taj) are World Heritage Monuments and the rest are national monuments. They said that any modification in the setting of such monuments required careful consideration. It said: "Unfortunately no such study has been conducted by the consultants and their proposal is wholly unfounded on any serious study. Several studies are necessary to arrive on any project relating to World Heritage Sites, none of which have been conducted." The experts noted that the ASI had informed them that no study had been done on the possible impact of the work under the project on the foundation of the Taj Mahal on account of the filling of the riverbed. They concluded that the project put the Taj "under undue risk". The experts said that near the Taj Mahal the river was already narrow and reclamation would make it even more so, resulting in the flooding of the river and danger to the monument. They categorically concluded that "the proposal is not based on safety consideration of this World Heritage Monument".

The experts noted that no study had been done to assess the demand for facilities suggested by the consultants along the river bank, such as Appu Ghar and the water park. This "should have been done keeping in view the heritage status of the monuments". The experts observed that although strictly no Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was required for the proposed work, keeping in view the heritage status of the monuments "any conscientious consultant would have conducted an EIA on their own to assure themselves about the validity of the project as well as to convince other people that the project will actually bring no adverse effect and would be beneficial". They castigated the consultants for using a plan prepared earlier by the CPCB which had suggested a heritage corridor covering the monuments and integrating them with the green belt and the Yamuna. But the experts noted that that plan was "without details" and was followed by another Heritage Zone plan prepared by the CPCB, which again had some suggestions "of a very general nature" that needed detailed studies before they could be given "physical shape". They said that the consultants had not conducted detailed studies. Besides, the CPCB had not suggested any encroachment or reclamation of the river. The experts wrote that it had come to their notice that some work had begun. They recommended that "all actions should be stopped and suspended till a detailed study is conducted and development justified and safety of Taj Mahal and other monuments ensured". They noted that a "cost-benefit analysis is called for on the impact on heritage and environment".

That despite such unambiguous objections and categorical recommendations the Uttar Pradesh government persisted with the project speaks volumes about its approach to issues of heritage. The construction work continued until Jagmohan intervened. In a letter to Chief Minister Mayawati on June 16, he expressed shock that such work was going on at places that were protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, where no work can be undertaken without the approval of the Central government or the ASI within a radius of 300 metres of such monuments. He requested the Chief Minister to "issue instructions to ensure that the statutory provisions are respected and nothing is done which is not in accordance with the approved plan of the Archaeological Survey of India and directions of the Supreme Court". He also advised her that if the issues raised in the media were incorrect, she should issue a contradiction because the matter had national and international implications.

But Mayawati did not issue a denial or order the work to be stopped. This prompted Jagmohan to inspect the site and write another letter on June 20 in which he apprised her of some "disturbing features". He said that UNESCO having declared the Taj and the Agra Fort World Heritage Sites, a certain ambience needed to be maintained at the sites. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, had been violated, as also the Supreme Court's directions. No clearance from the Central government, the Agra Development Authority (ADA), the Agra City Municipal Corporation, the CPCB or the Central Water Commission had been obtained. And the expert committee had asked that all work be stopped until a detailed study was conducted. In view of these facts, he asked the Chief Minister "to stop all further work forthwith and to probe the matter in depth".

It was only after this that Mayawati ordered the stoppage of the work and an inquiry by the Principal Secretary, Finance. "Why talk of suspension? I will terminate officers found guilty of violating the rules. There is no difference of opinion on this issue between Jagmohanji and me," she declared at a press conference in New Delhi. But she ignored or glossed over queries as to how such a massive project, that too one involving the Taj, could have been started in the first place without the Chief Minister's knowledge and approval.

Mayawati thereafter suspended the Principal Secretary, Environment, who, she said, had released funds for the project without her approval. The inquiry report is awaited, but experts are cynical about its outcome. UNESCO has taken the unusual step of getting a "reactive monitoring and reporting" done on its own. Its Indian delegation is due to visit Agra for a detailed study.

UNESCO's programme officer, Culture, R.P. Pereira said: "World Heritage status requires a certain ambience to be maintained as per the World Heritage Convention. And if we are of the view that any proposed construction, development or alteration could disturb that ambience, we could put the monument on the endangered list. This is the first step of getting a monument delisted from the World Heritage List. But it is a long process and any country is given enough time to rectify the damage done." According to Pereira, what was shocking was the fact that India is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, which made it obligatory for the state parties to inform UNESCO in advance of any proposed construction or alteration at a World Heritage Site. The proposed alteration or construction can begin only after the organisation makes its assessment of the impact and gives its approval. In this case, India has violated that clause. "Even as late as now, we have no official information from the Government of India. Whatever we know is through media reports and we have initiated action at our end on the basis of that," he said. The only redeeming feature, the programme officer said, was the fact that work had been stopped. "But if it resumes at any stage, it will be a serious issue," he said.

Of the 24 World Heritage Sites in India, two - Hampi and the Manas wildlife sanctuary - are on the "World Heritage in Danger" list. Putting the Taj also on the list could constitute a big loss of face for the country. "I shall see to it that the project does not get restarted," said Jagmohan. Meanwhile, he called a meeting of the Uttar Pradesh and Central government officials concerned to review the situation. Although he expressed satisfaction that the work had been stopped and an inquiry ordered, he was upset about the fact that such a massive project could begin at all without the permission of the Union Ministry of Culture.

Other disturbing features that have come to light in this context are the acts of omission and commission by government agencies that merely chose to watch the launch of the project, after having voiced their objections. These include the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the ASI, the Central Water Commission and the CPCB. The ASI, for instance, had filed a complaint with the Senior Superintendent of Police, Agra, on June 19, requesting him to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) "against unauthorised construction being carried out within the regulated area of the Centrally Protected Monument of Agra Fort, Agra". The FIR was not lodged.

The local agencies have been indifferent too. The ADA, which is responsible for all development work in Agra city, and the Agra Municipal Corporation, simply ignored the construction work. "The project came approved from the Chief Secretary's office. We had no role to play," said ADA Vice-Chairman Anil Kumar.

The Commissioner, Agra Division, informed sources said, was livid when the fact that construction had begun was brought to his notice by the local ASI representative, but apparently fell silent after he spoke to the Chief Secretary.

Mayawati has given herself, the Chief Secretary and State Environment Minister Naseemuddin Siddiqui, under whose patronage the project was progressing, a clean chit. She has written to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister clarifying her position. Although the danger posed to the Taj may have been warded off for the time being, it has not really gone away. Jagmohan, it appears, will need to display here the same level of firmness he had shown as Union Urban Development Minister in handling the matter of irregular, unauthorised colonies and industrial units in residential areas in Delhi.

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