India’s monumental heritage is on the brink of a shameful shift. The Central government is poised to introduce an amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, in Parliament, which would remove the security net that exists around our nationally protected monuments.
The track record of the government in maintaining our nationally protected monuments, to put it most charitably, is an indifferent one. There are encroachments by government agencies and individuals. The 2013 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) noted that of the 1,655 monuments whose records were scrutinised and which were physically inspected, 546 of them were encroached. This may well be because of a lack of basic manpower in the form of monument attendants. In 2010, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) stated on record that its staff strength did not permit the deployment of even a single person on a regular full-time basis at more than 2,500 of its monuments. This meant that more than two-thirds of India’s monuments that the Central government is supposed to protect were poorly guarded. At the same time, the CAG pointed to connivance by ASI officials as well. As the files of the ASI reveal, there are also numerous instances where politicians have proactively protected those who have illegally occupied the prohibited zone around monuments.
The only protection for our defenceless heritage has come from courts of law because there are legal provisions which, at least on paper, prevent the encroachment of the prohibited zone around monuments. The idea itself, that a security net ought to be created around heritage buildings, can be traced to Jawaharlal Nehru. As Prime Minister, he complained to the Union Minister of Education in 1955 that India’s old and historical places were getting spoilt by new buildings being put up around them. In order to prevent intrusions, Nehru suggested that the government “lay down that within a certain area no building should be put up without permission”. An example of his proactive approach in creating such protective barriers is the enclosure encircling the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana in Nizamuddin. This was built after Nehru had visited the site and suggested that the adjacent grounds be converted into a garden because, as he put it, he did not want the colony of Nizamuddin East to extend into the area around the tomb. This idea eventually found its way into the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules of 1959 which unambiguously, for the first time, noted a prohibited and a regulated zone around protected sites and monuments.
Because of these rules, the High Court of Delhi in 2009 struck down all permissions that had been illegally granted by the ASI through an Expert Advisory Committee. As a consequence of this judgment, in 2010, the Government of India set up a committee which recommended a new bill to Parliament. It is now known as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act. Unanimously passed in March 2010, this legislation brought the prohibited and regulated zones around monuments within the ambit of the Act itself.
As a consequence of this statute, the National Monuments Authority was set up. It is shocking that even after these years, a major task of this authority remains to be done, that of preparing heritage bye-laws for nationally protected monuments. If India’s rulers cared at all for our monuments, by now not only would the bye-laws pertaining to the 3,650 national monuments have been prepared, they would also have been tabled in Parliament as was required by law. Instead of expediting the preparation of those bye-laws, the government has sought to dilute the 100 m prohibited area around nationally protected monuments. The proposed amendment aims to allow the Central government to construct within that area all kinds of structures. Incidentally, the Cabinet note shows that the Ministry of Culture, instead of protecting monuments, is now acting a clearing house for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. The amendment is necessary, the Cabinet note states, because, among other things, an elevated road needs to be built in front of Akbar’s tomb in Agra! The Ministry of Culture needs to be reminded that it is the nodal agency for protecting our monuments, not endangering them. Otherwise, it is better for the government to abolish this ministry since cultural protection is far from what it seems to be doing.