• Sarnath : A Master Plan for Tourism Development, 1988
    Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Sarnath : A Master Plan for Tourism Development, 1988
  • Sarnath : Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development, 1990
    Varanasi Development Authority and Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Taj Mahal Cultural Heritage District : Development Plan II, 2001
    Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Champaner - Pavagadh Archaeological Park, Gujarat, India, 2001
    Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The Taj Corridor project has created a huge media controversy,{1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6} sending shock waves through the government bureaucracy. Everyone is now aware of the implications of the 'no build zone' around protected monuments and the importance of obtaining environmental clearance under almost any circumstance. So far so good, even though the negative implications of such rules 'their cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face nature' are yet to be assessed. My focus in this review is however on the origins of the Taj Corridor project, not its fall-out. This is a little examined perspective on this controversial project.

The Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (DLA), has an overseas component to its academic programme in which students are taken abroad to study how to develop context-specific design solutions. DLA students have been coming to India regularly to study important archaeological sites like Sarnath, Agra and Champaner, among others. These visits are often conducted under the aegis of the United States National Park Service (NPS) which has on occasion, utilised funds accumulated in India under the Public Law-480 food-aid programme to underwrite the costs of these study tours, including reciprocal visits to DLA by senior Indian bureaucrats associated with the development of the archaeological sites being studied by the students ' the better, no doubt, to ensure contextual fidelity in the student's project. The results of these exercises are published as handsome, large-format reports, presenting copiously illustrated solutions to the problems identified by the students. They are freely distributed to key officials and become the calling card for further studies. These reports attract the attention of decision-makers in India primarily because of their compelling presentation of local issues and neatly packaged solutions. Since the recommendations are authenticated by a reputable academic institution in the United States, the NPS and, of course, local bureaucrats who participated in the studio exercises in India and abroad, they are often unquestioningly implemented. The damage that such seemingly innocuous academic exercises unleash on the local environment has escaped public scrutiny.

I first came upon this invidious process at work in Sarnath in July 1993. I had been commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, to design a Meditation Centre and related projects to promote tourism at Sarnath as part of the development of the 'Buddhist Circuit'. On my first visit to Sarnath, I was presented with a copy of two documents prepared by DLA, on the basis of which the Government had decided to undertake the project.

The precursor to these documents was a 1986 Ministry of Tourism task force report, An Action Plan for the Development of the Buddhist Sector, which recommended the development of facilities and infrastructure at all Buddhist sties. The Ministry contracted NPS 'with which the Government of India had had a long working relationship, for assistance in development'.7 The NPS, in turn, invited DLA to undertake the study and develop conceptual master plans for selected sites.

In January 1988, an international design team - including DLA students, faculty and experts from Japan - conducted a 'two-week, on-site, intensive study of Sarnath'.8 The conceptual master plan prepared on site was presented to local officials in Varanasi and New Delhi, and further developed at the University of Illinois before publication in 1988. This was the first document I was given, titled, Sarnath: A Master Plan for Tourism Development.

The second document titled, Sarnath: Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development, was the result of a follow up, two week visit in January 1990 to identify 'significant cultural characteristics; the establishment of a cultural heritage zone; the formulation of conceptual design guidelines; and testing of these guidelines through case study design for various areas of the site'.9 Again, the study was taken back to the University of Illinois, 'where the studio was visited by officials from the Government of India's Ministry of Tourism, the State of Uttar Pradesh's Ministry of Tourism, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Commissioner of Varanasi, and a second working group of architects and planners from the Varanasi Development Authority'.10 Interestingly, this report assigns partial credit for authorship to the Varanasi Development Authority.

When I examined the reports in 1993 I was shocked. They contained the most stereotypical and Orientalist fantasies in the guise of 'design guidelines'. The basis for my reaction was my own experience developing conservation proposals for significant sacred sites like Varanasi, Ujjain and Bhubaneswar. In all these projects I was also resolving contemporary issues in culturally complex sites as an 'outsider', not unlike the position of the DLA team studying Sarnath; hence, the issue of an 'outsider' mediating the local context is not my complaint. What was shocking, however, was the naivet' the DLA team displayed in ingenuously transferring the Buddhist style on to contemporary buildings. Indeed, the entire Master Plan was suffused with Orientalist interpretations of historical context to serve contemporary needs, a licentious intellectual liberty that would not be attempted by serious professionals or permitted at sacred sites elsewhere.

The poor intellectual quality of these documents is hardly surprising, considering the fact that the DLA team during their two-week visit to India 'spent the first few days in Delhi taking in the standard tourist sites...flew to Varanasi where they stayed at the Clarks Hotel (in the Cantonment area)...(and) after touring the archaeological site, they returned to their hotel in Varanasi and worked for the next week on a design plan'.Midway through their stay in Varanasi, the Americans took a break to tour the old city, and to take a dawn boat ride on the Ganges...Otherwise, team members did not leave the hotel to mix with Indians or see much else of Varanasi.'team members report being put off by aggressive taxi and rickshaw wallahs... At the end of their stay, the Illinois team made presentations of preliminary plans both in Varanasi and Delhi, but the bulk of the second site report was done after returning to Illinois.'11

And yet, here at Sarnath and earlier at Delhi, these documents were presented to me by local officials, including the Commissioner, as the blueprint for my assignment. Of course, their appropriation and internalising of the DLA report was hardly surprising given their role in its production.

It was a significant commission for me, not only because I was going through a lean patch in my professional practice, but also because it was a high-profile project of national importance. Nevertheless, I took the bull by the horns and rejected the blue print. I explained my objections and offered to formulate a new master plan in addition to the original assignment to design a Meditation Centre.

Considering that I was an emissary from the Central government, local officials were initially wary and uncertain of how to deal with my apostasy. To cut a long story short, the assignment did not materialise. After several visits and considerable work on the development of the design of the Mediation Centre, the local bureaucracy resisted my initiatives and killed the project by using the best strategy it possessed: prevarication. Funds sanctioned by the Central government were diverted by local authorities, contracts were not honoured, officials changed, the project lost steam and I was left holding one of the most exciting design proposals I had developed in my professional career, unrealised.

It was with these misgivings upon reading the Sarnath reports and experiencing the attitude of local officials that I wrote to Professor Amita Sinha, the lone Indian faculty member (from Lucknow) on the DLA team who, I presumed, must be somewhat familiar with the Sarnath site and the colonial mindset of Indian bureaucracy. I pointed out the complexity of conducting an unequal dialogue between US 'experts' and Indian officials who had, moreover, already been coopted by being asked to participate in studio exercise in Illinois. I received no answer. I can only assume that DLA and NPS rejected the implications of my observation because they have carried on in the same manner at other sites, most recently at the Taj.

I relate this story to provide an insight into what happened at the aborted Taj Corridor project. The actors were the same: DLA, NPS, and several local officials who 'participated' in developing the design proposals prepared by the students during their now routine two-week tours to the site. But at Agra no one questioned the content of the students proposals as I did at Sarnath. The tragedy I wish to underscore in the scandal that erupted after the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Shri Jagmohan, 'discovered' this project under construction, is not the complicity of the officials and the politicians in breaking laws (and perhaps diverting public funds for private benefit) which is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, but the fact that they sincerely believed that this was a worthwhile project. This belief was fostered by, and had its origins in the authentication DLA and NPS conferred on the student projects. Besides, having been involved in its production, many of the officials were only trying to efficiently and effectively implement what they may have considered to be their own idea; under these circumstances, the bureaucracy can as easily obstruct, as it can facilitate the implementation of any project. This is what happened at Sarnath and Agra. In both cases the bureaucracy's fetishisation of foreign consultants stands out, even when these consultants are merely students undertaking a two-week studio exercise. Our bureaucracy scarcely accords senior local professionals such respect and, needless to say, our architectural students are not similarly feted here or abroad.

The Taj report is an exotic fantasy generically similar to the Sarnath exercise. This is also true of DLA's recent Champaner-Pavagadh study, where a complex Hindu-Muslim medieval city has been treated in a formulaic manner by resorting to the use of stylistic architectural clich's. Again, at Champaner-Pavagadh, the recommendations of a local conservation architect, with years of on-site experience, were discounted in favour of promoting the recommendations of the DLA team. I must clarify that I am not alleging that the DLA reports I am reviewing are without any redeeming merit. For example, the Champaner-Pavagadh study is qualitatively superior to the earlier ones, but then, this study also had the benefit of access to the work done earlier by local consultants.

All studies I am reviewing are, however, predicated on the agency of local power brokers ' government officials in the case of Sarnath and Taj, and an aggressive NGO in the case of the Champaner-Pavagadh project. These agents smooth the way for the reports to be presented to decision-makers. This pattern of obtaining official approval for student exercises distinguishes them from similar exercises undertaken by Indian academic institutions. I understand that the Champaner-Pavagadh report is yet to be presented to the highest authorities, but when it is, it will be retracing a familiar path. Once again the works of DLA students will be used to leverage official sanctions for projects that promoters believe will be better design solutions for conservation works necessary to be undertaken.

In all these cases shoddy solution are inevitable given the cursory manner in which the sites are studied. The students in such exercises are on an exciting field trip to 'exotic India', as much to absorb local colour as to practice the limited skills they have acquired in their architectural education thus far. This is a powerful pedagogic strategy ' much like throwing someone into the deep end of a swimming pool in order to teach them to swim. But we must remember that the reports produced are just that ' educational tools ' and not documents backed by years of experience in the field. Accepting these reports uncritically and promoting their contents as well considered policy, is sufficient grounds for concern, both on the part of those who offer the advice and those who accept it.

This is the background leading to the Taj Corridor fiasco. NPS produced the Agra Heritage Project: Planning Synopsis in 1994; DLA used it to produce the Taj Mahal Cultural Heritage District: Development Plan in 2000; its students on subsequent visits elaborated four phases of the suggested plan of action, and the fifth and final phase focussed on building the now infamous promenade on the west bank of the river Yamuna, which was published in 2001. It was this proposal that the Uttar Pradesh Government was in the process of implementing when Shri Jagmohan blew the whistle. The matter is sub-judice and investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation is still in progress but in the debate that the project has generated the role of NPS and DLA ' and the implications thereof ' has been elided.

While DLA's original proposal suggested that the site be used primarily for passive recreation, respecting the 500-meter 'no build zone' around the Taj Mahal, their translation into the Taj Corridor Project by the Uttar Pradesh Government through the National Project Construction Corporation, a commercially aggressive public sector consultancy and construction company, has focussed on the project's financial viability. The change in objectives catapulted the project into the controversy we know today. In my letter to Professor Sinha, I had warned her of such consequences.

I am wary of even raising this point at this juncture in our political life, because the subject of the 'foreign hand' is picked up with distressing alacrity and distorted to achieve political mileage, by politicians and even academics in many contexts. The latest manifestation of this xenophobic strategy is the establishment of a society called the Bharat Shiksha Kosh by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, which requires that all foreign funding for research and academic activity in Indian academic institutions be channeled through this new, government controlled entity. Surely, the answer to inappropriate foreign influence on local policy is not censorship but greater awareness of one's own intellectual potentials, professional resources and social responsibilities.

This is the lesson we need to learn in the time of globalization. The DLAs and NPSs will continue to study India and educate their students as they have in the past. In the process, they will continue to produce the slick monographs such as the ones under review. They may even continue to find agents to promote their work. That is not a problem, except to the extent that such works are presented by the authors as well-conceived advice on conservation policy. The real problem 'and tragedy' is that our decision-makers are seduced by such sophomoric exercises and reject serious initiatives undertaken by local professionals.

  • 1. Waiting to strike, by Purnima S. Tripathy; in Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 17, August 16 - 29, 2003. "The Opposition in Uttar Pradesh, which is once again drumming up support to pull down the Mayawati government during the Budget session of the State Assembly, banks mainly on the discontent in the BJP over the party's alliance with the BSP."
  • 2. The Taj impact, by Purnima S. Tripathy; Cover Story, Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 19, September 13 - 26, 2003. "For the troubled BJP-BSP coalition, Mayawati's confrontation with Union Minister Jagmohan over the Taj Corridor project proved to be the last straw."
  • 3. Big setback for the BJP, by Praful Bidwai; in Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 19, September 13 - 26, 2003. "The rupture of the Bharatiya Janata Party's alliance with Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh is a big blow to the party's electoral prospects, and undermines Hindutva's claimed ability to forge strategic alliances with diverse social groups on its terms."
  • 4. The Uttar Pradesh Drama, by Purnima S. Tripathy; inFrontline, Volume 20 - Issue 19, September 13 - 26, 2003 "Political equations in Uttar Pradesh go into a spin with Mayawati suddenly snapping her alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the latter, in a desperate move, enabling its arch enemy Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the government."
  • 5. Delay and doubts, by Purnima S. Tripathy; in  Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 21, October 11 - 24, 2003. "The CBI's delay in filing FIRs against the accused, including former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and BSP president Mayawati, in the Rs.175-crore Taj corridor scandal indicates that political factors might be influencing the course of law."
  • 6. A promising alliance by Sukumar Muralidharan; in Volume 20 - Issue 23, November, 08 - 21, 2003. "Despite a rather desultory performance in key infrastructure sectors, a compromise with the BSP might take the Digvijay Singh-led Congress(I) to a winning position in Madhya Pradesh."
  • 7. Sarnath: A Master Plan for Tourism Development, p.2
  • 8. Ibid., p.3
  • 9. Sarnath: Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development, p.2
  • 10. Ibid., p.2
  • 11. David Prochaska, 'Ethnography of a Postcolonial Site : Sarnath' in the Proceedings of the Theatres of Decolonization Conference, Chandigarh, January 6-10, 1995, Edited by Vikramaditya Prakash, and published by the Office of the Dean, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, 1997, pp. 327-350. p.341. Prochaska's essay provides a detailed insider's view of the DLA Sarnath exercise and questions the motives and strategies employed by both DLA and NPS.