Project Puri: Odisha government’s ‘project of the century’ to renovate Lord Jagannath’s abode

Known for its 12th century Jagannath Temple, this Odisha town is seeing over ₹4,200 crore being spent on various once-in-a-century development initiatives, as Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik puts it. His party views the project as an ode to the temple; the Opposition as a vote-gathering ‘investment’

Updated - July 07, 2023 10:34 am IST

Published - July 07, 2023 02:07 am IST

Government-sponsored construction around the Jagannath Temple in Puri.

Government-sponsored construction around the Jagannath Temple in Puri. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The Jagannath Temple rath yatra has just concluded, and Rabi Narayan Das, 53, misses the chaos and crowds. “My house used to be filled with close relatives and friends from out of town,” he remembers. A bank employee, Mr. Das voluntarily gave up his three-storeyed 800 sq ft. home, built 40 years ago, a few feet away from the 12th century temple, for one of the largest State-sponsored temple city development projects in the country. The family of four now lives about a kilometre away, and wakes up every morning to a flyover that is coming up to enhance the ease of access for religious tourism.

Last month, the Odisha Cabinet, chaired by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, approved a proposal to increase the total outlay by over ₹1,000 crore, from ₹3,208 crore (sanctioned in 2021-22) to ₹4,224.22 crore, for the Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture (ABADHA) scheme, which aims at transforming Puri’s infrastructure.

The Jagannath Temple, one of the four dhams (holiest of holy sites for Hindus), occupying over 43,000 square metres, is the reason the town exists. About 70-80% of the people in the town are dependent on the temple’s economy. As Mr. Das gets used to the sound of traffic in his new home, he remembers the tinkle of bells and the clash of cymbals. “The CM had made an emotional appeal for land acquisition, so we consented to giving our house,” he says, adding that no amount of money can compensate for the emotional connect with the deity.

Mr. Das’s neighbour, Naba Kishore Sahu, 72, a former lodge owner who has lived in Puri for 60-odd years, recalls, “Our lives moved to the rituals performed for Lord Jagannath and sibling deities Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra. Now, we are getting used to a different way of life.”

The temple city’s makeover commenced with an investment of ₹98.23 crore in 2017-18 and six projects. It is now changing the skyline of Puri, with the construction of the 1.5-km Shree Setu flyover. This will give devotees access to Puri’s main road from the national highway, but is visible to almost every house in the town. The aim of the whole project is to consolidate itself as representative of Odisha’s cultural, social, and religious identity, and reinforce the city’s infrastructure, overloaded with pilgrims.

As many as 36 major projects are being undertaken, including the widening of roads, creation of parking spaces, construction of a flyover, the revival of the 4.8-km-long Musa river, and the rejuvenation of water tanks. Administrative units will be shifted to one campus.

What made the two Puri residents give up their property near the Jagannath Temple dedicated to Vishnu? “Some part was government pressure, but we are also convinced that this is good work that hasn’t been taken up at this scale for centuries,” says Mr. Sahu.

Behind the scenes

In 2019, there was a buzz over the laying of the foundation stone of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor project. The road was to connect the temple with the Ganga ghats. Away from the limelight, the Naveen Patnaik government was simultaneously working on Puri’s overhaul.

There are different theories attached to its conceptualisation. V.K. Pandian, private secretary to the Odisha CM, implied that it was some sort of divine intervention that propelled Mr. Patnaik to make the investment. During a presentation on Puri’s development plan three years ago, he spoke about Mr. Patnaik’s visit to the temple on New Year’s Day in 2016. “In front of Mahaprabhu (the deity) inside the temple, I saw a different CM. During his return journey, Mr. Patnaik said something should be done for the temple. That is how the project came into being,” he said.

In the first week of January 2016, a decision was taken to shift the mid-19th century jail that was occupying considerable space within Puri to Bangar, 15 km away.

Some political leaders and commentators put the temple town investment down to political astuteness. With the success the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for temple building and development, has had, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) did not want to fall behind and let the BJP strengthen its base in the State on that plank.

Mr. Patnaik has assigned funds to temples in all 30 districts in the State. Most projects are likely to be completed before the 2024 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, much like the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

The opportunity to announce Project Puri came in 2019, when Cyclone Fani devastated the coastal town and its heritage structures. ABADHA openly became a priority.

Puri’s purpose

Connected by rail and a soon-to-be-six-lane highway from Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital, Puri is a coastal town spread over 17 sq km. Despite its 35 degrees Celsius summer heat compounded by the coastal humidity and salt-laden discomfort, crowds from across the world visit every year in June for the temple festival that Mr. Das once had a vantage point to.

Its clean beaches, the Konark Temple, and Chilika lake are added attractions. The stone work and pattachitras of heritage village Raghurajpur, and appliqué work at Pipili, about 20 km and 40 km away, respectively, also draw visitors.

This year, the 12-day festival saw nearly 50 lakh participants, estimated at being 30% higher than previous years. “Usually the day after the festival ends, there is less of a crowd, but not this year,” says Binayak Dasmohapatra, a sevayat (temple priest). At non-peak time, the town sees about 60,000 pilgrims daily.

The project’s Social Impact Assessment study states, “The huge demand on the city infrastructure is stretched far beyond its carrying capacity, be it drainage, septage, water supply or sanitation. The city is also in the cyclone path and several low-lying areas are flood-prone.”

Houses are mostly located down narrow lanes around the temple, with only the outer circle getting some breathing space. Most galis open into Badadanda (Grand Road, in Odia), the widest three-km-long road that connects Jagannath Temple to Gundicha Temple, considered the abode of the deity’s maasima (maternal aunt). This road will now be widened, the façade of properties pigmented bitumen, and temporary arcades developed for shopping.

The under-construction Shree Setu flyover.

The under-construction Shree Setu flyover. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The plan

In 2016, the Justice Bimal Prasad Das Commission of Inquiry, which was constituted to advise on better administration and governance of the temple and its endowments, recommended a 75-metre security zone around the main compound wall (Meghanada Prachir).

Intelligence inputs had cautioned against a threat from terrorist groups such as the Indian Mujahideen, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Hizbul Mujahideen.

In the land acquisition that took place, 259 homeowners, 135 encroachers, 190 lodge and shop owners, 526 street vendors, and 17 mutts (monasteries) were included in rehabilitation and resettlement packages. The mammoth exercise helped the government acquire 15.64 acres critical for the development of the security zone. “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 was substantially improved,” says Puri Sub-Collector Bhabataran Sahu.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the pace of progress. Two years later, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), custodians of the temple, filed a case against the State government, saying the proposal was in violation of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, which says no new construction can take place within a radius of 100 metres of a monument. The State government modified the plan complying with the Act and shifted construction outside the 100-metre area.

Project management

The Shree Mandira Parikrama Project (SMPP, as the security zone is called) abutting Meghanada Prachir is divided into nine zones on the northern, southern, and western sides. Built at an investment of ₹943 crore, the SMPP includes a seven-metre green buffer zone, a 10-metre pedestrian-only Antar (inner) Pradakshina that will be used for parikrama (clockwise circumambulation), and a 10-metre public convenience area. “We have already completed underground drains and power lines around the temple. The SMPP is expected to be handed over in a year,” says Jaya Krushna Das, managing director of the State-run Odisha Bridge and Construction Corporation Limited, the executing agency.

The Jagannath Ballav Matha Pilgrim Centre will be spread across five acres and provide parking facilities for 1,000 cars, a commercial space, amenities, and meditation areas. Other parking spaces for 1,080 cars and 1,000 two-wheelers are also being created.

Prominent projects include a reception centre, where 5,000 devotees can wait in queue; low-cost lodging facilities for 3,500 devotees; a two-km beach road; improvement of mutt complexes; and a CCTV surveillance and integrated traffic management system. Though progress of all projects hovers around 12%, the hope is that a newly shaped Puri will emerge by March 2025.

Mixed reactions

“After the removal of encroachments, the temple can be clearly seen, and we can go around it,” says Bhanumati Singh, a devotee from Balasore district who visits every year.

However, several residents of Puri are unhappy. “We used to enjoy special privileges for entering the temple. Now, we have been asked to stand in queue like general tourists,” says Gobinda Mohapatra.

When the Puri district administration started clearing constructions within 75 metres from the temple in 2019, several mutts were razed, among them the Emaar, Languli, and Bada Akhada mutts. Though the government has earmarked ₹100 crore for mutt development, there has been little consultation with mutt leaders so far.

Similarly, street vendors, especially women, see an uncertain future in the redeveloped Badadanda, in front of the temple. “I earn ₹300 a day selling salita (wicks for diyas) and sankha (bangles for puja). I sit on the road where devotees come to me. I don’t see a place in the redeveloped Badadanda,” says Manasi Baral, a vendor.

Bishnupriya Prusty, another vendor, says her family had been at that location selling puja samagri for 70 years. “When the redevelopment started, the administration evicted us and paid us a compensation of ₹30,000. The massive redevelopment is only meant for high-spending tourists,” says Ms. Prusty.

Earlier this year, Mr. Patnaik had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure that the proposed Shree Jagannath International Airport, Puri, materialises. The State government has also expedited the Shamuka Beach Project — one of the country’s largest tourism projects that will see luxury properties come up — in Puri.

Establishing a legacy

If things go the BJD’s way in the Assembly election, Mr. Patnaik, who is completing his fifth term next year, will become one of India’s longest-serving CMs. Most residents agree that he has garnered goodwill from the Puri project, but Sandeep Sahu, a veteran journalist, says it has been “upset due to the government’s refusal to open the ratna bhandar (treasury) of the temple”.

The CM’s expenditure on other temples has, however, garnered criticism. Last week, Mr. Patnaik laid the foundation stone of the ₹280-crore Ekamra project to beautify and improve basic amenities around the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar. Another ₹200 crore has been earmarked for the development of the Samaleswari Temple in Sambalpur district.

In his home district of Ganjam, Mr. Patnaik had already allocated ₹115 crore for the redevelopment of the Tara Tarini Temple. Similarly, funds of ₹70 crore were given to the Chandi Temple, Cuttack, and ₹42 crore to the Sarala Temple in Jagatsinghpur district. Facelifts of up to four more temples are on the cards.

“In order to hide the failure of governance, the BJD government has chosen the path of temple development and it has been successful to some extent. People keep themselves busy discussing temple development while the government enjoys a free run,” says senior Congress leader and former State Finance Minister Panchanana Kanungo.

Puri Lok Sabha MP Pinaki Misra differs, saying, “This is just an attempt to fulfil the basic aspiration of people.” On Puri, he adds that Mr. Patnaik wanted to undertake development as a whole, rather than in piecemeal form, which is why such a large sum has been allotted. “The Odisha CM is an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath and he owes whatever success he has in life to the blessing of the lord,” he says.

Meanwhile, the ASI-protected 13th century Atharanala bridge, less than 100 metres long, gives itself up for conservation, as the town heaves under both legacy and development.

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