Heritage week on, but it doesn`t show in Taj city

Agra: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is observing a heritage week but there is little evidence of Agra, so rich in historical monuments, toasting this legacy except for some insipid banners at these venues.

The heritage week began Nov 19 but encroachments and illegal constructions tell a tale of dire neglect -- at many places.

"Beyond sending a press release, the ASI did nothing to create awareness, hold programmes or spruce up the monuments being dwarfed by encroachments. A mobile phone tower has come up right in front of the Etmauddaula and ASI is not able to pressure police to shift it," Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, told reporters.

"The list of charges from corrupt practices, including promotion of re-selling of entrance tickets and shoddy conservational work, grows longer each year."

It is high time the maintenance and management of the classic heritage monuments in Agra were handed over to professionals and specialists, Sharma suggested.

Agra, about 200 km south of Delhi, has three world heritage monuments - the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri - and numerous other buildings and sites that draw lakhs of tourists round the year.

Eminent Mughal historian R. Nath said: "The mandarins in ASI, mostly passion-less babus, have little idea about history, culture or modern day conservational practices. Many have not even read the original Marshal manual or the insightful reports of the past."

Perhaps the greatest threat to heritage monuments is the encroachments.

ASI says state government agencies have not provided it much needed support and police backup to deter the encroachers from trespassing the restricted zones.

The protected Roman Catholic cemetery at Bhagwan Talkies crossing has been reduced to a vast public lavatory. It is now surrounded by a picture hall, a petrol pump and a shopping complex.

"The entire boundary wall and the open space between the road and the wall is used as an open toilet by autorickshaw drivers and even policemen. The smaller protected landmarks all along the Bypass road are now hardly visible," says conservationist Rajan Kishore.

The view of the beautiful Etmauddaula tomb from the Yamuna Kinara road has been obstructed by a new bridge, so callously built in the restricted zone. The water pipeline installed by the Agra Water Works along the river bank is a monstrosity and an ugly visual pollutant, he adds.

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

The Taj Mahal, surrounded by the neighbourhoods of the Taj Ganj locality, has been able to breathe easy because of the Supreme Court and international concern for its safety. Other monuments are not so lucky.

Delhi Gate close to the Raja Mandi station finds itself threatened by new constructions, but the district authorities do not have the courage to act against the powerful encroachers.

"A whole Medical Mandi has come up in the area which once had community ponds," says V.P. Singh, an academic.

The Fatehpur Sikri complex continues to be threatened by illegal activities of the mining mafia which have been carrying on even though the Supreme Court has given a categorical directive to the district authorities to stop.

ASI is proving helpless and unequal to the challenge posed by a spate of illegal constructions around protected monuments in Agra.

Though it has been regularly shooting out letters to the Agra Development Authority (ADA) pointing out how the 1958 Monuments Protection Act was being flagrantly violated, the cold response to its complaints has baffled officials of the department.

The ASI two years ago circulated a list of 50 odd monuments in Agra which came under the purview of the said Act. The ADA is responsible for ensuring there were no new constructions around these buildings.

Historical buildings or remnants like Jodhabai`s chatri, Jaswant Singh ki Chatri, Chini kaRoza, Humayun`s mosque, Babar`s Ram Bagh, Barahkhambha and scores of other valuable architectural pieces 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 serve as havens for anti-social elements.

ADA officials privately confess that demolition of all illegal structures was beyond their capacity as political pressures would prevent any major offensive against encroachers.