Two years ago, when the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act was passed, the government claimed that the conservation of centrally protected monuments would be vastly improved. Tightened rules, increased penalties and the provision for creating new authorities in the amended Act would prevent encroachments and help manage heritage areas better, was the promise. But the outcome has been disappointing. The issue, it appears, is not just legislation. Weak institutional infrastructure, poor capacity and a lackadaisical approach continue to undermine conservation efforts. The Archaeological Survey of India, the institution responsible for the protection of ancient monuments and sites, has, over the past 150 years, declared 3,677 historic structures as nationally important monuments. It has done well to keep them structurally sound, but has not paid attention to the area around. In contrast, since the 1960s, best practices across the world have involved the creation of buffer zones as additional sheaths of protection and to enrich the experience of monuments. Sadly, the ASI woke up to this fact only in 1992 and notified rules to regulate new construction coming up within a 300-metre zone of protected monuments.
Lax enforcement of this rule has impaired many monuments. Jantar Mantar, the 18th century observatory in Delhi, is a case in point. While the monument is well preserved, the shadows cast by multi-storeyed buildings in the vicinity have made it impossible to appreciate the significance of this historic structure. Even after 1992, when new regulations were in force, the ASI failed to stop the New Delhi Municipal Corporation from constructing a high-rise office building that was uncomfortably close to the monument. In England, which has 20,000 scheduled monuments and 10,000 conservation areas, local authorities actively engage with conservation and improve the settings of heritage structures through site-specific plans using well thought-out criteria. In 2010, the amended Act enabled the government to set up a new competent authority in every State — mostly chaired by the head of the State department of archaeology — to improve implementation by devising monument specific plans and byelaws. Till date, many States have not got their plans ready. As a result, as in Chennai, neither have encroachments been removed nor has the anxiety of residents who live close to monuments been addressed. The approach needs to be changed and conservation plans have to be integrated with development plans administered by local bodies. Monuments are fragile, precious cultural assets and they deserve more care.
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