The story so far: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) said on Tuesday, May 17, that a sculpture of a lion, which possibly dates back to the Ganga dynasty, was found during excavation for the controversial heritage corridor project around the 12th century Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha. This is the third such lion sculpture found during the excavation work. The East Ganga dynasty had ruled Kalinga, as Odisha was called in ancient times, from the early fifth century to the early 15th century.
The Odisha government’s ambitious temple corridor project in Puri has become a subject of political controversy between Chief Minister Naveen Pattanaik’s Biju Janata Dal government and the opposition BJP and Congress. Three court proceedings are currently underway in the matter.
On May 9, the ASI noted in a report submitted to the Orissa High Court that there was every possibility of archaeological remains at the heritage site being destroyed due to the excavation work for the corridor.
What is the Puri Heritage Corridor Project?
The Puri Heritage Corridor Project is a ₹3,200-crore redevelopment project of the Odisha government in Puri to create an international heritage site, including the 800-year-old Jagannath temple. Under the umbrella project falls the Shree Jagannatha Heritage Corridor (SJHC) or the Shree Mandira Parikrama Project, for the revamp of the area around the temple.
Plans for the corridor had been in the making since 2016, with the State Assembly unanimously passing a resolution for the effective implementation of the Project’s plan in February last year. Soon after, the plan was approved by the Shree Jagannatha Temple Administration (SJTA). The Odisha government has listed three objectives for the revamp of the area around the temple- the security of the temple, the safety of devotees, and the creation of a religious atmosphere for devotees.
The government allotted initial funds of ₹800 crore for the first phase of the Project from its Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture at Puri (ABADHA) scheme introduced in 2019. Mr. Patnaik laid the foundation stone for the Project in November last year.
Under the scheme, 22 development projects are planned, including the temple corridor, redevelopment of the SJTA building, the creation of a reception centre with a capacity of 6,000 for devotees visiting the temple, a cultural centre including a library, the Bada Danda (grand road outside the temple) Heritage Streetscape Project, a plan to improve temple amenities such as building cloakrooms and toilets, a control and command centre, multilevel parking, the revival of the Musa River, and the Puri Lake Project. While the project has been taken up by the Odisha Bridge and Construction Corporation (OBCC) under the State’s Works Department, Tata Projects is the implementing authority.
Why has it become a subject of controversy?
In February this year, when the OBBC started excavation work within 75 metres of the Jagannath temple to build public amenities such as toilets and cloakrooms, experts and members of civil society objected to the use of heavy machinery for digging, citing the possibility of an adverse impact on the 12th Century temple. Questions started being raised about whether the construction around the temple had the due permissions and clearances.
The Jagannath temple has been designated a monument of national importance by the Archaeological Survey and is a centrally protected monument. As per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act (AMSAR), construction is prohibited within a 100-metre periphery of a protected area. The area extending to 200 metres around the monument in all directions is called a regulated area. As per the provisions of the AMSAR Act, the National Monuments Authority (NMA), set up in 2011 under the Ministry of Culture, is charged with protecting and preserving ASI-protected sites by managing the prohibited and regulated area in the periphery of such a site. If construction has to be undertaken in the regulated or prohibited area, permission from the NMA is required.
Notably, the term “construction” as defined in the AMSAR Act does not include the construction of public toilets, urinals, and “similar conveniences”. It also does not include works for the supply of water, electricity or “provision of similar facilities for publicity”.
Besides, an impact assessment is also required to be done by the NMA before development around a monument if the built-up area of the monument is beyond 5,000 square metres. The built-up area of the Jagannath temple stands at 43,301.36 sq metres.
Raising concerns about the structural safety of the temple in the wake of the excavation in the prohibited area of the temple, Dilip Baral, a resident of Puri, filed a plea with the Orissa High Court in March.
BJP MP from Bhubaneshwar Aprajita Sarangi also raised the issue in the Parliament session in March. Calling the work around the temple “illegal”, the Opposition parliamentarian said: “It is a matter of great concern... Massive demolition and construction works are taking place within 100 and 200-metre area of the temple. No permission from NMA and ASI has been taken. The work which is a threat to temple must stop.”
Responding to Ms. Sarangi, BJD MP Pinaki Misra said that no digging was being done. “Only four toilets are being constructed. Four toilets, two each for male and female, are being constructed. No additional construction is taking place,” he said.
What has the ASI said?
After the petition was filed in the High Court in March, the ASI was directed to conduct a joint inspection of the site along with the state government.
In its affidavit submitted to the court in May post the survey, the ASI observed that there was “every possibility that the agency OBCC during the excavation or soil removal might have destroyed the archaeological remains of the heritage site”. It pointed out that the construction work fell partly within both the prohibited and regulated areas of the centrally protected monument
The ASI had found that the ongoing construction work of the Shree Mandira Parikrama Project had “no valid permission or no objection certificate (NOC) issued by the competent authority”.
Moreover, the apex conservation agency said: “It was informed during the discussion that no heritage impact assessment studies have been conducted before commencement of the project. No Ground Penetrating Radar Survey (GPRS) has been conducted to ascertain the archaeological and historical importance lying buried in the subsoil of 75m radius (Construction Zone) of Centrally Protected Monuments.”
After accepting the ASI report, Orissa HC’s Division Bench comprising Chief Justice S. Muralidhar and Judge R. K. Pattnaik had directed the State government to file an affidavit by June 20, fixing June 22 as the next date of hearing.
There were allegations in March about the government not having taken due permissions and not having kept ASI in the loop, but further information was revealed in April. The ASI on February 21, had visited the temple and inspected the project being executed around it, telling the government to revise its temple development plan. ASI Director-General V. Vidyavathi in her visit note had said, “The proposed amenities fall within the prohibited area of the temple. The government was also requested to keep the entire design simple in tandem with the spiritual nature of the entire temple complex.”
She had also mentioned that a part of the reception centre with a capacity of 6000 devotees was going to be constructed within the 75-metre periphery and urged the State to consider options to slightly move the building beyond 100 meters as that would be in the best interest of the security of the temple.
What does the Odisha government say?
The Odisha government refuted the ASI report in court, saying that it had acquired a NOC from the NMA in September 2021. The NOC was granted for constructing a cloakroom, three toilets, an electrical facility, a pavement, and a shelter pavilion in the 75-metre zone as it did not come under “construction” as per the AMSAR Act. The NMA had no objection as long as the work was carried out under ASI supervision. However, the ASI later said that no such permission was taken from it.
The Odisha government has said that the Supreme Court, in its 2019 judgement on improvements at the Jagannath temple, had supported the State administration's work and asked the ASI to extend its cooperation for such developmental activities.
The November 2019 judgement of the apex court read “We place on record our appreciation that all stakeholders are happy with the development taking place at the instance of the government and they are cooperating with each other in the restoration of the glory of Jagannath Temple. We direct ASI also to cooperate and permit the activities of improvement.”
What are the two other cases filed over the issue?
Besides the Orissa High Court proceedings, the issue is also being heard in a district court and the sub-divisional judicial magistrate (SDJM) court in Puri. The Puri Lawyers' Association have filed the plea in the district court, seeking an injunction on the construction work, while a local advocate filed the case with the SDJM. In the first case, notices have been issued to the Ministry of Culture, ASI, NMA, the Puri district collector, and the executing authority OBCC, among others. The SDJM, meanwhile, has ordered the filing of FIRs against the Puri district collector, OBCC, and Tata Projects over the construction.