In an experiment for better protection of monuments, conservationists and citizens are trying to address the clash between the ASI and communities living close to heritage structures

Last week this column drew attention to two aspects pertaining to the built heritage of Delhi — the very small proportion that is being looked after and the all pervasive air of neglect and untidiness that seems to negate the restoration that has been carried out among this limited number of protected monuments.

The measly amount that was available for the maintenance of the 174 monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Delhi last year was Rs 5.75 crore. It might be useful to note that Rs 54 crore has been kept for horticulture in the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area for the year 2012-13.

These meagre driblets, from the munificence of a state that constantly harps on its great regard for the rich heritage of this country, are responsible for the theatre of the absurd that is performed daily at ASI protected monuments. Till the run up to the Commonwealth Games none of the major monuments in Delhi had arrangements for clean drinking water and proper public conveniences. Most of the others do not have them even today. The sprawling fort complex of the third city of Delhi is one such, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park another, Bijay Mandal and Begumpur yet others. What is likely to happen in the absence of these basic facilities has become the norm in many of these monuments -- they are unapproachable because of the strong odour that constantly emanates from them.

The budget amount released for repair and restoration at a site is forever way below the requirement and so stones are bought but there is no money either to hire the masons or for buying bricks and limestone for preparing the mortar. Or if the iron fence is bought there is no money to engage the staff to fix it, and so year after year piles of stones, broken down bricks, unfinished iron fences and the like clutter each protected site.

The paucity of funds in only one of the problems that conservation archaeologists working with the ASI face, the other issues have to do with situations when conservationists and those living cheek by jowl with protected monuments find themselves on opposite sides, well almost.

Take a look at the Begumpur mosque and its sorry state and you will better appreciate the difficulties that forever confront conservationists. The mosque was in all probability built by Khan-e-Jahan Maqbool Junanashah Telangani, the prime minister of Ferozeshah Tughlaq during the second half of the 14 century. There are several accounts that suggest that for a while the entire Begumpur village had virtually moved into the mosque and the conservationists had to use all their persuasive powers to encourage them to move out in the early part of the 20 century. After independence, the aftermath of the partition brought a very large number of refugees to Delhi. The population of Delhi had increased from one million to two million within a decade (1941-51) and the new arrivals moved into any shelter they could find. The Begumpur mosque provided both shelter and security.

These new occupiers were only moved out in the early 1950s and settled on two sides of the mosque. Nobody knew or cared about the niceties of the Act for protection of monuments and the evictees built wherever they could. Few years later things like conservation etc, began to be taken cognisance of, meanwhile the families had grown, the children had become adults, had gotten married and had children of their own. They needed more space but were told that they cannot expand their houses since that will be a violation of the Ancient Monument Preservation Act.

This is the beginning of the simmering tension between the villagers and the ASI, not only at Begumpur but also at other places like Khirki, Mohammadpur, Sultan-e-Ghari (Sultangarhi), virtually all over Mehrauli and many other sites.

The ASI thinks that the villagers are encroaching on its territory and must be removed. The residents think that they are being denied the only social space that has been theirs for decades. This is a classical stalemate. Both parties think that they are right, the ASI has the power of the Constitution behind it and the villagers say that they have a historical claim on the premises.

Except for long winding litigation there seemed no way out, or so it appeared till a few weeks ago. But now there is hope. Students of the heritage club of Mother’s International School and other students under ‘Socially Useful Productive Work’ have begun to engage with residents of the village. A few parents and village elders have also begun to show interest and a group of conservationists led by eminent historian Dr Naraini Gupta have started working as Friends of ASI to bridge the gap between the ASI and the villagers of Begumpur. The idea is to help the residents of the village to begin to feel ownership towards the historical monuments at Begumpur and to encourage ASI and the villagers to become joint owners of the heritage.

This is a test case according to conservationists. If the experiment is successful, the model can be tried at other places. Village elders are hoping that if the idea takes root they will have more visitors to the monument and the village and this might prompt the local councillor and the MCD to become a little more active and take steps to remove the leaking hydrants, the puddles and potholes from the village roads and make them worthy of the monument that they connect to the rest of the world.

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