Agra: While experts deliberate on policy frameworks to sustain and promote the visual integrity of world heritage monuments at the ongoing Unesco meet in this Taj city, questions are being raised about the integrity of Agra`s heritage structures.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has failed abjectly in controlling the spread of encroachments, which threaten even historical monuments.
Almost all Mughal monuments here have now been dwarfed by encroachments. While restricting space and cluttering up and thus destroying the beauty of the historical buildings, these encroachments now have reached such levels of proliferation that the very survival of some monuments is now at stake.
The Taj Mahal, surrounded by mohallas of the Taj Ganj locality, has been able to breathe easy because of the Supreme Court judgments seeking its conservation; international concern for its safety has also aided the cause of the preservation of the Taj Mahal.
Lesser monuments, however, have not experienced such luck.
Delhi Gate, close to the Raja Mandi station, finds itself threatened by new construction. The district authorities have failed to act against the encroachers.
The Fatehpur Sikri complex continues to be threatened by the illegal activities of the mining mafia, which has been carrying on operations without fear, even though the Supreme Court has given a categorical directive to district authorities to stop mining in the area.
The ASI is proving helpless and unequal to the challenge posed by a spate of illegal construction around protected monuments in Agra, many residents say.
Though it has been regularly shooting off letters to the Agra Development Authority pointing out how the Monuments Protection Act, 1958, was being flagrantly violated, it has elicited no response.
The ASI has circulated a list of about 50 monuments in Agra which come under the purview of the Monuments Protection Act. The Agra Development Authority (ADA) is responsible for ensuring there were no new constructions around these buildings.
ADA authorities, however, privately confess that demolition of all illegal structures was beyond their capacity. Political pressures would prevent any major offensive against encroachers.
The city of the Taj has numerous monuments which come under the protected list. Over the years, because of governmental indifference and corrupt practices, no action has been taken against people who built houses and places of worship around these monuments.
The Roman Catholic cemetery near the Civil Court is now surrounded by a movie 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, Maraiam`s tomb, Babar`s Ram Bagh, Barahkhambha, and scores of other valuable architectural pieces are under threat, as encroachments creep up on every inch of space.
Some of the dilapidated land marks are being used as cowsheds, or as havens for anti-social elements.
One wonders what happened to the newly constituted National Monuments Authority (NMA) which was mandated to come down heavily on illegal structures near protected monuments.
The centre constituted the NMA and designated the commissioner of Agra as the competent authority for 24 districts of Western Uttar Pradesh, to prevent unauthorized construction activity in and around protected monuments.
The commissioner was made responsible for sanctioning any construction activity within a certain specified radius of protected monuments. This role was earlier performed by the Delhi-based head office of the Archaeological Survey of India.
In order to prohibit illegal construction activities near heritage and protected monuments, the central government, in 2011, had brought amendments in its Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
As per the amendment, a minimum of 100 metres, beginning from the boundary limit of the protected monument, is specified as "prohibited area", beyond which, in all directions, a minimum of 200 metres is categorized as "regulated area".
Thus, residents in the protected area (100m radius) of the protected monuments cannot raise any construction; in the regulated area, they could undertake construction, repair and altercation only with the permission of the NMA.
Two years after the change in the laws, the situation on the ground remains much the same. The designated authority has still not bothered to proceed against encroachers.