Fines for squatting on Agra`s heritage land

Agra: Encroachers in Agra and the surrounding area will no longer have it easy, with the state government setting up a panel and announcing heavy fines to tackle the menace and monitor the condition of nearly 400 monuments, including several magnificent Mughal-era structures, in 24 districts of western Uttar Pradesh.

Agra`s divisional commissioner Amrit Abhijat has been made the chairman of this body, mandated to act on a continuous basis against encroachers, under the amended provisions of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, 1958.

Giving information on the new guidelines and norms to be followed in respect of new and old constructions around the 397 monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Abhijat said anyone encroaching or constructing new structures without following the new rules can be jailed for two years and fined Rs.1 lakh.

The norms relate to restrictions imposed within 100 metres and 200 metres of a monument.

In Agra, where almost all historical monuments have seen a surfeit of encroachments and where the smaller and the lesser-known ones have been virtually overshadowed by new constructions, experts have welcomed the new step.

"There was a lot of confusion and contradictions and the permission was delayed even for repairs. But now the whole system has been streamlined and some welcome changes have been made which would help make conservation easier," said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

Agra residents say that over the years, the state government and the ASI authorities have miserably failed to take care of several historical monuments in Agra, the seat of power for several Mughal emperors in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Almost all the Mughal monuments have been dwarfed by encroachments that not only make movement difficult but also pose a serious threat to these historical buildings.

Though the Taj Mahal, surrounded by a crowd of colonies, has been able to breathe easy because of the Supreme Court and international concern for its safety, other monuments are not so lucky.

Over the years, the government`s indifference and corrupt practices have ensured that no action was taken against people who built houses and places of worship around most of these monuments, say residents.

The Delhi Gate close to the Raja Mandi station finds itself threatened by new constructions, the Roman Catholic cemetery near Civil Court is now surrounded by a picture hall, a petrol pump and a shopping complex.

Other historical buildings or remnants like Jodhabai`s Chatri, Jaswant Singh ki Chatri, Chini ka Roza, Humayun`s mosque, Babar`s Ram Bagh, Barahkhambha, and scores of other valuable architectural sites are under threat of losing their identity as encroachers continue to gobble up every inch of space.

Some of the dilapidated landmarks are being used as cowsheds or havens for anti-social elements by squatters.

Outside Agra, the Fatehpur Sikri complex continues to be threatened by illegal activities of the mining mafia which has been carrying on without fear, even though the Supreme Court has given a categorical directive to the district authorities to stop mining in the area.

So far, the ASI has been helpless to the challenge posed by illegal constructions around protected monuments in Agra. Though it has been regularly shooting out letters to the Agra Development Authority citing flagrant violations of the 1958 Act, no action had been taken on its complaints.