Bill allowing construction near heritage monuments impinges autonomy of ASI, NMA; Centre must take public into confidence

Raghav Katyal
Amid the outrage over the Nirav Modi scam and Karti Chidambaram's arrest in the INX Media case, the NDA government looks set to face a stormy second half of Budget Session which begins from Monday.

Contemporary discourse on power politics commonly include references to soft power. Soft power is the ability to exert power over others by attraction, and not coercion. Further, a region's soft power can often be an alternate bridge to other regions and communities. The history of a land, its art forms, language, music, and culture together form this soft power. The monuments of a region, the ruins of a bygone era form tangible relics of the history of a land. A conservation of the same can, then, be considered as an exercise in strengthening soft power.

It is in this light that we must see The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment) Bill, 2017 which is up for consideration and passing in the Lok Sabha. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the former Union minister Dr Mahesh Sharma in the Monsoon Session of 2017. It seeks to include an exception for "public works" in the prohibition on construction in the 100-metre protected area around a monument.

The current prohibition on construction was imposed through a 2010 Amendment to the Monuments Act, along with the constitution of a National Monuments Authority (NMA).This bill dilutes the present legislation by excluding public works from this prohibition. It defines public works as those which are carried out, and financed, by departments of the central government and are necessitated by a danger to public security. This raises a concern that many activities which can impede conservation efforts shall henceforth be carried out in the garb of public works.

The concerns that stem from this ambiguous definition can be broadly characterised into two main categories. Firstly, it opens up the scope for conflict among the Union and state government. The bill grants authority only to the central government to propose said projects. Challenging the same, Vandana Chavan, a Rajya Sabha MP, said that the bill takes away power from the people in deciding which projects are needed in the vicinity of a protected monument. The people, she said, have the best understanding of the public safety needs of a city and this bill excludes people at the grassroots from having a say in the projects that are proposed.This bill also casts a shadow on Article 49 of the Directive Principles of State Policy which calls on states to protect monuments.

Secondly, this provision casts doubt on the true autonomy of the National Monuments Authority (NMA) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Take for example the proposal to build a flyover in front of Akbar's tomb in Agra. While this proposal was rejected, given the current prohibition on construction in the protected zone, the present amendment shall empower the central government to increasingly propose and intervene in the functioning of aforementioned authorities.On the same, Vandana Chavan remarked that the bill shall incentivise the government to appoint government loyalists to organisations like the NMA and ASI to gain concessions on the projects that it seeks to pursue.

The discussions on the same in the parliament saw the proponents of the bill saying that it gives greater power to the central government to develop areas in the vicinity of a protected monument as a tourist hub. Further, a 2013 CAG report noted the paucity of human and financial resources with the ASI, and cited encroachment in 546 of the 1655 monuments surveyed as an example. The efforts of the central government to augment these tourism hubs must be seen as an effort in boosting soft power.

The concern for the MP is that any infrastructure that seeks to develop an area as a tourism hub must complement the aesthetic of the monument, something that the central government authorities sitting in Delhi can scarcely assess and realise. Such decisions, the MP said, are best taken after taking into consideration the collective wisdom of the inhabitants of the city, and the protected area that shall be altered by such decisions.

Given that the current amendment has no provisions for the same, all development that shall be carried forward henceforth shall be highly top-down and alien to the local architectural heritage. The parliament must consider the concerns raised above, in terms of destruction of structures due to construction activities, and the cascading impact this amendment shall have on the functioning of an already poorly resourced ASI and NMA. Finally, the parliament must also take into consideration the impact of this bill on India's soft power, given that the conservation of Indian monuments forms a vital pillar of it.

Raghav Katyal studies political science at Ashoka University and working with Idiog Consulting in New Delhi. View More