Chhoti Gumti at Green Park, New Delhi (Photo: Getty Images)
SOON AFTER THE Manmohan Singh government won a second term in 2009, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) found themselves in a quandary. Among important legislation like the National Food Security Act—a key Congress poll promise—amendments to the law on the maintenance and protection of ancient monuments had become a matter requiring urgent consideration. A relook at the law governing the working of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was certainly overdue, but the changes being considered threatened to create a new maze of bureaucracy. But the academics backing the proposals enjoyed extraordinary access and were not to be denied. A National Monuments Authority (NMA) would regulate areas in the proximity of sites with stringent rules banning construction in a 100-metre radius and restrictions over a further 200 metres. Residents living near designated national monuments would need permission from the NMA for renovations or changes to existing premises.
The objective seemed noble enough, protecting monuments from encroachments and even destruction. But amendments to the Ancient Monuments Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act in 2010 failed to resolve existing problems and, as apprehended by officials, ended up creating new ones. In Delhi alone, where there are 173 such monuments, there were protests and outcries. A rationale for the amendments was the alleged inefficiency and graft in ASI’s functioning that led to massive encroachments in areas like Nizamuddin and Mehrauli. But the tough rules mandated by NMA meant that even simple repairs or additions were bound in red tape. A dispute broke out between some plot owners in Malviya Nagar and NMA over how the 100m ban was to be measured on the ground. Would it be from the perimeter of the monument or its centre? Aggrieved plot owners said their properties worth several crores had been rendered next to worthless as they fell foul of the 100m rule. Governments and municipal authorities in several countries have indeed restricted construction in heritage areas, but fashioned rules to allow construction and repair that do not defile the aesthetics and value of older structures.
Speaking in Lok Sabha during the discussion on the motion of thanks on the president’s address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for addressing every problem with a law, without offering an effective solution. “For every issue…you would show a law,” he said. While his reference was to Congress’ legislation-rights-based approach, the changes in the AMASR Act and the creation of NMA fit the bill. The Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) report, ‘Monuments of National Importance: The urgent need for rationalization’, concludes that the NMA experiment needs to be reversed. “Separation of responsibilities between ASI [maintenance of monuments] and NMA [development of surrounding area] seems to not have worked. It is advisable to merge the responsibilities for protecting the monument and management of surrounding areas and give it to one autonomous institution [for example, NMA] under the aegis of ASI. The main ASI should focus only on archaeology research, excavation, restorations, and maintenance of museums,” says the report submitted by Sanjeev Sanyal, member, PMEAC, and senior consultants Jayasimha KR and Apurv Mishra. The reasons are not hard to find. The report notes that the NMA was to prepare bylaws for all 3,695 monuments of national importance: “However, in the past 11 years, NMA has framed bylaws for only 126, most of which are awaiting the nod of ASI… full-time members to NMA have not been appointed since 2018-19 and there are only two part-time members currently serving.” The separation between ASI and NMA was artificial and unwieldy.
Examining the source of a list of monuments that is largely inherited from the colonial era, the report states that 2,582 sites are in this category. No monument has been denotified since 1978, and so the current list includes many that do not deserve the tag of monuments of national importance. There has been no serious review of the list that is almost completely an import of a pre-independence enumeration, with some 700-odd sites added from 1947 till 1978. There are no clear guidelines that define what “national importance” amounts to, and it is for circle officers to recommend to a committee which sites may be included. The committee held four meetings between 2006-12 and the record thereafter is unclear. ASI has not refined its guidelines and lacks criteria like those set out by UNESCO for listing world heritage sites. “Out of the 78 proposals submitted by various circles since 1996 [until 2012] for the protection of monuments, only 53 were submitted to the committee for consideration,” states the report. The neglect in scrutinising the lists is matched by paltry funding received by ASI to protect monuments. It was just `428 crore in 2019-20.
The report has brought out a serious geographical skew in the location of protected monuments with over 60 per cent in just five states—Uttar Pradesh (743), Karnataka (506), Tamil Nadu (412), Madhya Pradesh (291), and Maharashtra (286). States like Bihar (70), Odisha (80), Kerala (29), and Chhattisgarh (46) have fewer such monuments. Of Delhi’s 173, reports by mediapersons who visited the locations of several monuments reveal many to be missing. The problem is exacerbated by scores of monuments that lack any particular significance being on the list, bloating it as well as distorting the distribution of sites. A joint inspection by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and ASI of 1,655 monuments found around 92 were “untraceable”. The actual number is likely to be more, the PMEAC report states, given that more than 2,000 monuments are not inspected. By 2015, a subsequent hunt for the missing monuments revealed that 42 monuments did exist, 14 were affected by encroachment, and 12 were submerged in reservoirs. The remaining 24 monuments remain missing.
The extensive study reveals that around 75 graves and cemeteries of British soldiers and officers are monuments of national importance. The fairly common kos minars or distance markers are often listed as protected monuments, and the report suggests these be de-notified and states asked to take charge of their protection. Similarly, standalone structures, like a single-cast cannon, are lying in the open and will be better off inside a museum. A structure called Chhoti Gumti in Green Park in Delhi is on the list as its construct suggests it could be from the Lodhi era. The report concludes that a quarter of the monuments tagged as sites of national importance may not deserve such a listing. On the other hand, Delhi’s Turkman Gate is not listed as a monument of national importance despite its obvious salience. A mechanical application of rules, as suggested by the 2010 amendments, was not the solution and it is no surprise that changes began to be diluted in the UPA era itself. The Delhi Metro would hardly be the network it is, ferrying lakhs of commuters and significantly lowering the capital’s carbon footprint, were it not for crucial exemptions it secured.