By Brij Khandelwal
The annual “Heritage Week” observed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has just ended in the Taj city but most people gave it a miss, while activists mourned the conditions of monuments under threat by rampant neglect and encroachment by squatters.
Except for painting competitions for school students held in Agra and Vrindavan, the ASI has done nothing to bond the local population with their heritage.
The “aam admi” in Agra hardly feels a sense of pride or emotional attachement with the world famous architectural treasures like the Taj Mahal, but see the monuments as a hurdle to economic progress due to a whole lot of restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court to protect them from environmental pollution.
Another city in India or elsewhere, with three world heritage monuments and countless prized historical showpieces, would have got involved in the “Heritage Week” celebrations and created a euphoria, says conservationist Rajan Kishore.
The ASI routinely observes the heritage week but there is little evidence of Agra residents joining in while encroachments and illegal constructions tell the real story.
“Beyond sending a press release, the ASI did nothing to create awareness, hold programmes or spruce up the monuments being dwarfed by encroachments,” Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society,said.
“The list of charges, from corrupt practices including promotion of re-selling entrance tickets and shoddy conservational work, grows longer each year,” he said.
Agra, about 200 km south of Delhi, has three world heritage monuments – the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri – and numerous other buildings and sites drawing lakhs of tourists round the year.
Eminent Mughal historian R. Nath said: “The mandarins in ASI, mostly passionless babus, have little idea about history, culture or modern day conservational practices.”
Perhaps the greatest threat to heritage monuments is the encroachments. ASI however says state government agencies have not provided it much needed support and police backup to deter the encroachers.
The protected Roman Catholic cemetery at Bhagwan Talkies crossing has been reduced to a vast public lavatory. It is now surrounded by a picture hall, a petrol pump and a shopping complex.
“The entire boundary wall and the open space between the road and the wall is used as an open toilet by autorickshaw drivers and even policemen,” says activist Anand Rai.
The view of the beautiful Etmauddaula tomb from the Yamuna Kinara road has been obstructed by a new, callously built bridge while the pipeline installed by the Agra Water Works along the river bank is a monstrosity and an ugly visual pollutant, he adds.
Almost all Mughal monuments have been dwarfed by encroachments, though the Taj has been able to breathe easy because of the apex court and international concern for its safety. Other monuments are not so lucky.
Delhi Gate close to the Raja Mandi station finds itself threatened by new constructions, but the district authorities do not have the courage to act against the powerful encroachers.
The Fatehpur Sikri complex continues to be threatened by illegal activities of the mining mafia despite a categorical directive from the Supreme Court to the district authorities to stop them.
ASI is proving helpless and unequal to the challenge posed by a spate of illegal constructions around 50 odd protected monuments.
Though it has been regularly shooting out letters to the Agra Development Authority, which is responsible for ensuring there were no new constructions around these buildings, pointing out how the Monuments Protection Act was being flagrantly violated, its complaints meet a cold response.
Historical buildings or remnants like Jodhabai’s chatri, Jaswant Singh ki Chatri, Chini ka Roza, Humayun’s mosque, Babar’s Ram Bagh, Barahkhambha and scores of other valuable architectural pieces are under threat of losing their identity due to encroachments.
ADA officials privately confess that demolition of all illegal structures was beyond their capacity as political pressures would prevent any major offensive against encroachers.
If a star monument like the Taj Mahal can not be maintained according to classical norms described in the ASI manual, it is high time to review the existing framework within which the official conservationists operate, suggests historian Amit Mukherjea.
Historians and conservationists in Agra feel that the ASI should now be in the hands of professional conservationists and reputed historians who are passionate about their job of maintaining and managing the monuments.