Left, Right, Centre

Should urbanisation score over conservation?

Isometric vector illustration of destruction and war in the Middle East.  

LEFT | Shireen Moosvi

The Culture Ministry talks not of cultural heritage but of roadways, railway tracks, and private landed interests

It is remarkable how those today in power, who shout daily from the housetops that they love Bharat Mata and serve her in a manner never imagined by their predecessors, by their actions daily undermine the country’s multicultural heritage.

For instance, sample the latest amendments to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958, that have been placed before Parliament, to do away with the prohibited zones around protected national monuments whenever it chooses to do so for some supposed “public” purpose.

Whose Culture Ministry?

To justify this, we are offered a note for the Cabinet prepared by the Ministry of Culture. Significantly, the ministry here speaks not on behalf of our cultural heritage, as it should, but pleads the cause of roadways, railway tracks, and unknown private landed interests.

The note claims that lives would be endangered if an elevated highway is not allowed to pass within 100 metres of Akbar’s tomb in Agra. In the second case, it speaks of a proposed railway track that had to be shifted away from Rani ki vav in Patan, Gujarat. The third and final instance is that of an unnamed hospital (private?) which cannot supposedly expand except by intruding within 100 metres of Tipu Sultan’s palace in Bengaluru.

These three instances are considered enough by the Ministry of Culture to demand the withdrawal of the constraint imposed by the AMASR Act on any new construction within 100 metres of a protected monument (with a further limit of 200 metres set for “regulated area”). In effect, the cases it cites are two only, since in Patan the matter has ended with the railway track already steering clear of the 11th century stepwell. The remaining two are interesting instances since they do not only concern “Muslim” monuments, but are associated with two men in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s cross hairs, namely, Akbar and Tipu Sultan. Are these two dubious cases enough to justify endangering the security and spoiling the surroundings of over 3,500 nationally protected monuments in the country?

Incidentally, the statement in the note that some hypothetical projects cannot be shifted away from the monuments because of constraints of “land-ownership” in the alternative area is really strange since this nation has on its statute book a law for compulsory acquisition for public purposes. It is clear that the Ministry of Culture’s note is a piece produced at somebody’s command.

Nowhere is it stated in it that the Archaeological Survey of India (under the Ministry of Culture) has cleared the proposal or that the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology has been consulted about it. Nor does even the ministry’s note itself care to consider the probable effects of the intruding structures on the security and appearance of the protected monuments concerned, or the effect of heavy traffic on the structures of the monuments (as in Sikandra, Agra).

All those interested in the defence of our heritage must do their best to oppose this proposal. Our members of Parliament, before whom the proposed amendments to the AMASR Act are being put, should be reminded of how in 1876 James Fergusson, a great Anglo-Indian student of Indian architecture, had the courage to describe such ill-treatment of Mughal monuments by the British government as “vandalism”. Behind British prejudice there was at least no avarice. Now the protected zones around our 3,500-odd monuments are to be put up for grabs by corporates and land sharks hiding behind nominal “public authorities”. This should not be allowed to happen.

Shireen Moosvi is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University

RIGHT | Rajeev Sethi



We are not facilitating the exchange of ideas. Regions have to evolve their own charter and engineering codes

A barbed-wire approach towards conservation can be faulted just as cookie-cutter standards on rules can become tyrannical. Yardsticks framing ground regulations must be preceded by informed discussions with experienced historians, artists, planners, conservationists, etc. A view on every single proposal that relates to the built environment requires trans-disciplinary intervention.

I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris could not have been built if a view had not been taken right at the top by the President of France to see the project through. Intense public participation followed. There were heated debates. Today the luminescent hi-tech structure enhances the experience of the stone facade museum and has become iconic to Paris’s heritage value.

People protested even then. But look at the Grands Projets — or officially, the Grandes Operations d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme, an architectural programme initiated by President François Mitterrand to create modern iconic monuments in the inner city of Paris — now. However provocative, it is an elegant, complementary foil to the past. The civic building projects symbolised both the revitalisation of the city and an adherence to its history

City-specific planning

Creativity and a vision for the built space cannot be left to bureaucracy — howsoever trained — or a political group aligned in whichever direction. An urban arts commission in each city is needed as an empowered authority to direct appropriate mapping of its tangible and intangible heritage, to be followed by the preparation of a conservation management plan for each precinct. New buildings must come up even at the cost of old ones if absolutely needed and designed accordingly. I don’t think this can come from a one-dimensional rule.

One would need to evolve a holistic strategy that can cohere and be transmitted enhancing the spirit of the city. I hope the new rules, that I am yet to examine, will not mean that one can build anything anywhere.

Rules without a system in place can become abusive. Knee-jerk reactions cannot be an answer to development and this is not just about a city. This is not about a monument or a builders’ lobby.

The irony is, in a so-called federal polity, we are not facilitating the exchange of ideas. Everybody seems to be doing his or her own thing or too fearful of doing anything.

There is no reason why a Meerut or Jaipur cannot exchange ideas with Delhi or Nashik and Pune refer to Mumbai. Regions have to evolve their own local charter and engineering codes.

Bodies buckling under

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) was supposed to be the civil society’s initiative answering questions on the nature of appropriate materials, local skills and contexts, serving as a bridge between conservation and urbanisation. While it did a number of good things, it did not develop teeth to challenge the government or initiate state-of-the-art research or conduct a seminal taking of stock.

A few years ago, some of us had taken the Archaeological Survey of India to the Supreme Court for undertaking major renovation work in the name of conservation at the Red Fort in the Capital, making a mockery of its heritage status. The court had intervened very positively, but as I am told, damages continue with utter disregard to the ruling. There is ample evidence to show what is being done in the name of renovation.

There has to be a politics of culture represented by people who have a feel for the city, its history and cultural heritage.

Rajeev Sethi is the curator and founder of the Asian Heritage Foundation

CENTRE | Jawhar Sircar



No one has empowered the present generation to endanger our heritage pooled in over centuries


The problem with parliamentary democracy often lies in its inscrutable legal jargon. By the time one gets to know the real purport of a Bill, it is all over and done with.

We need, therefore, to act real fast to convince our lawmakers not to rush through with further amendments to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendments and Validation) Act, 2010.

If passed, it will shatter the much-laboured protective circle that was installed around our monuments only seven years ago, after centuries of indifference. The nation realised that it had to act tough if it was to save the part of India’s priceless built heritage that had not yet been mauled by urbanisation, greed or insensitive development projects.

The law was, therefore, amended in 2010 to declare the immediate circle of 100 metres around these monuments as strict ‘prohibited zones’. For the first time, no one was permitted to build or rebuild: not even ubiquitous and omnipotent government authorities.

The present Bill before Parliament seeks to restore the ‘majesty’ of government.

I happened to be around as Secretary of the Culture Ministry seven years ago when this protective law was put in place and I faced the same criticism: why can’t government projects be on a different footing?

Lessons and experiences

We went through the lessons and experiences of advanced countries and found that more history-conscious nations too had to use very strict laws to protect their heritage that they could never rebuild without some critical loss. We realised that in India, this law has to be even more stringent or else it would be treated as just one more ‘negotiable instrument’.

Our collective heritage has been pooled in by several generations over many centuries and millennia. No one has empowered the present generation to destroy or endanger this bequest. From my four decades in government, it is clear that its rusty cutting edge, the tribe of inspectors, tehsildars, thanedars and crafty clerks can pervert every well-meaning decision to make quick bucks or to misuse some megawatts of power that a new notification bestows on them.

The upper echelons need to be extra sensitive and realise that every exception that they make further empowers these dreadful hyenas who are so thick with local leaders and business sharks.

A recent parliamentary committee report pointed out that even with so much legal protection, 93 encroachments have actually come up in the Qutub Minar zone in the Capital. This could never have happened without the collusion of local leaders and officials. And a large number of our monuments are simply ‘missing’.

It is difficult to believe that the world’s fastest-growing economy cannot spend a little more to skirt a road project around the tomb of the father of Indian secularism, Akbar, in Agra so that it passes beyond the prohibited 100-metre zone. Or is Akbar being given a message?

Will we be so tolerant if a busy flyover or a ground-shaking train line rubbed past Kashi Vishwanath or the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple and disturbed their gravitas?

Rani ki vav is an outstanding architectural masterpiece of Chalukyan Gujarat. It is not only ‘Hindu’: it also nurtures the revered waters of River Saraswati.

Can the proposed railway line in Patan that one hears of take a little detour so that India does not lose the World Heritage status that it earned with so much toil for Rani ki vav? Are a hundred metres too much to plead for?

Jawhar Sircar is a former Union Culture Secretary and was the CEO of the Prasar Bharati Corporation

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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 2:08:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-urbanisation-score-over-conservation/article19319432.ece

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