Wednesday, Jun 25, 2003
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By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Talking to The Hindu over the telephone from Chennai airport, M.C. Mehta, the Supreme Court advocate whose long crusade saved the Taj from industrial pollution some years ago, described the latest attempt to put in peril Shah Jahan's dream as a "scam involving corrupt politicians and bureaucrats".
Mr. Mehta, who was on his way from New Delhi to Sri Lanka, said that had the so-called "Heritage Corridor" come up, it could have also affected the ecology. "Those guilty of this racket must be punished," he added.
A 2-km stretch of shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment centres and parks was being built along the Yamuna river between the Agra Fort and Shah Jahan's marvel in marble. Terming it "Heritage Corridor" in what clearly seemed to be an attempt to hoodwink the people and powers that be this mega Rs. 175-crore project was not just an affront to all those who fought for about a quarter century to save one of the most precious wonders from a defiant oil refinery and scores of small factories that spewed toxic fumes, but also an example of blatant disregard for India's history and heritage.
It is obvious that those who got the bricks moving knew that the corridor was not exactly legal or desirable, and that the area around the Taj, called the Trapezium, had been declared "fragile" and any activity there needed special clearances and monitoring.
In 1999, UNESCO placed the Hampi group of monuments in Karnataka on the "List of World Heritage in Danger", because two bridges a road and a foot were being built close to the ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire. Assam's Manas National Park is also on the endangered list.
The Taj Mahal could well have been the third in a country which has only 24 locations both archaeological and natural under the World Heritage Sites, while much smaller nations such as Italy and some others, have more locations.
One important reason for this, according to Minja Yang, UNESCO's Deputy-Director in Paris, is the slow or incomplete paper work by the authorities. "Often, we cannot even begin examining the possibility of including an Indian site in the World Heritage List, because the documents or forms reach us late or without full information," she told this correspondent.
This clearly indicates the kind of importance India gives to its history, and if the Taj Mahal, protected under UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, can be treated in such a callous manner, one shudders to imagine the fate of hundreds of smaller, lesser known though arresting archaeological structures in the country. If the renowned Nataraja temple in Chidambaram greets you with a garbage dump in its courtyard, the Agra railway station hardly fits the description of a gateway to the Taj Mahal.
The list of such ill-maintained places is long, implying a lack of will political at the highest level and otherwise to protect India's cultural heritage.
In the final analysis, one way of saving India's history and heritage is to establish a line of accountability by granting greater powers to local bodies to prevent such vandalism as we saw in case of the Taj. They must also be made accountable. The local bodies are perhaps best suited for these.
Of course, there must be an apex organisation that the local bodies can report to, and having set up this line of command and control, India must get down to the serious business of preserving the wonderful aspects of its past.
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