Haryana govt’s twin challenge in Sirsa protecting Ther mound, resettling those it forces out

Varinder Bhatia
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Over flowing sewerage water in front of the apartments in Sector 19 Housing Board Colony alloted to the families that were shifted from Ther

The prospect of clearing entire 82 acres of the ‘Ther Mound’ — a protected archaeological site which has nearly 50,000 people living there — continues to haunt the Haryana government. The Mound is believed to hold clues to the ancient city of ‘Sarishika’, but it must be cleared for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to confirm its historicity. What the state government faces is a dual challenge of protecting the Mound and rehabilitating the evacuees.

Historical importance

Falling on the old route to Takshashila, the 6th-5th century BC city of ‘Sarishika’, found mention in the Mahabharata, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and the Buddhist text Divyavadana.

The Mound rises 15-18 metres above nearby areas, but there is a dispute over the size of the protected area. It was under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 that Sirsa’s ‘Ther Mound’ was declared a protected monument back in 1932.

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Over flowing sewerage water in front of the apartments in Sector 19 Housing Board Colony alotted to the families that were shifted from Ther (Express Photo: Kamleshwar Singh)

On July 9, 1932, the then Punjab government had issued a notification under Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, and the then Governor in Council had declared Ther Mound of Sirsa in Haryana, a protected monument/site of national importance. Hearing multiple petitions related to the encroachments on the Ther mound, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has directed state government to clear the Mound’s entire 82 acres and move the encroachers out of the protect monument/ site.

Current status: 31 acres cleared

Implementing the High Court orders in 2017, the state government had moved 788 families out of the Ther Mound and settled them in Sirsa’s Housing Board Colony in Sector 19. The state government claims to have cleared around 31 acres of the protected site’s area, but removing the remaining families, and where and how to rehabilitate them remains a headache.

Manohar Lal Khattar led Haryana government’s earlier attempts to denotify the Ther Mound’s land could not see light of the day. But considering the arduous task ahead, the state government is again proceeding to get in touch with ASI to explore the options of getting the land denotified.

Govt’s challenges and the road ahead

Rehabilitating hundreds of families (those who are yet to be moved from Ther Mound) to another location is also appearing an arduous task as the state government is facing an inter-departmental tussle on who shall take up the task of rehabilitating the alleged “encroachers”.

It was in March, 2019 when the Cabinet headed by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar took a decision that Archaeology and Museums Department will purchase Housing Board flats for rehabilitation of persons displaced from Ther Mound.

Ashok Khemka, Principal Secretary, Archives, Archaeology and Museums Department, however, had been vehemently refusing to toe the government’s line, calling the move “illegal”.

“The need for rehabilitation at the Ther Mound has arisen due to unlawful encroachment, and not due to helplessness of generational settlers caught unaware of the notification. Because land is a Revenue Department subject, therefore encroachment of general provincial land falls within its jurisdiction, or of the Home Department regarding the maintenance of Law and Order with respect to carrying out the orders of the High Court,” Khemka wrote to the government in December, 2019.

The Housing Board, whose flats are now being used to rehabilitate people removed from Ther Mound, has raised a demand of Rs 137.34 crore for 788 flats at the rate of Rs 17.43 lakhs per flat. While the state government maintains that Archaeology and Museums Department should take up the responsibility of rehabilitating the evacuees, Khemka put his foot down, calling it “setting a wrong precedent”.

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Youngsters show allergy marks. (Express Photo: Kamleshwar Singh)

“Rehabilitation of illegal encroachers on centrally protected land owned by the state government is not within the domain of the A&M department as per the Allocation of Business Rules of the Haryana government. As per Jamabandi for the year 1920-21, the land belonged to the state government and the MC, Sirsa was in possession. The A&M department was created in 1972. Transfer of land from one department to another will require approval of the Council of Ministers. Moreover, rewarding illegal encroachers with a flat cannot be state policy,” Khemka wrote to the Chief Minister.

A high-level meeting was held to resolve the issue of Ther Mound on February 18, 2020. In the meeting, Deputy Commissioner, Sirsa informed that “nine Gram Panchayats were willing to provide land amounting to a total 89 acres for the purpose of rehabilitation of Ther Mound occupants.”

The government is, however, yet considering an amicable way out to resolve the issue. The Archaeology and Museums Department has been asked to take up the matter with Director General, ASI for de-protection of some of the heavily habitated parts of Ther Mound. Deputy Commissioner, Sirsa has been asked to prepare a proposal regarding rehabilitation of the encroachers that will be scrutinized by a committee chaired by Financial Commissioner (Revenue) and make recommendations to the Chief Minister.

Reviewing first round of rehabilitation

The families that were rehabilitated in 2017 continue to live in difficult condition. Lanes filled with overflowing sewerage with heaps of garbage full of rodents and flies and the air filled with unbearable stench hits anybody visiting the Sirsa’s Housing Board Colony in Sector 19 where the government moved the alleged encroachers of Ther Mound in 2017, as part of evacuation and subsequent rehabilitation drive.

A total of 788 families are currently staying in the Housing Board Colony, according to Sirsa Deputy Commissioner’s January, 2020 report submitted to the government. A visit to the colony, however, reveals the unliveable conditions existing on ground.

Many of the flats do not even have main doors and the algae filled walls are full of seepage. The two-room flats have only one door to separate washrooms from kitchen and the other two rooms.

“Is this the rehabilitation that the government talks about? We were dumped here like animals from late 2017 till early 2018. No government functionary bothered to even look at us after that. Can even an animal drink this kind of a water that we get in the name of drinking water here,” said Sunil Kumar while pointing at a water-pump supposed to be supplying potable water that was surrounded with filth.

Sunil claimed that he had bought a piece of land at Ther for Rs. 22000 from a man called Raghu. “Raghu and another person Jai Kishore were two persons who sold majority of land of Ther to people like us. Now, the government calls us encroachers. All we are left with these pieces of stamp papers showing that we purchased the land at Ther. We do not know where to show these papers and what do with this trash,” Sunil added showing an affidavit as proof of purchase of the land at Ther.

“After the government razed our houses, I was among the first lot of 44 families who were evicted from Ther and dumped here in these flats. Our children are suffering from rashes and several skin ailments, all because of these filthy conditions that exist here in this colony. Most of us work as daily wagers. How can we get our children medical treatment? And what’s our fault — that somebody cheated us and sold us the land that originally belonged to the government?” said Sunita, who too claims she bought the land in Ther and possess relevant documents.

Even Sirsa’s Deputy Commissioner Ramesh Chander Bidhan’s January, 2020 report submitted to the government mentions, “A few people have conveyance deeds of the protected government land in their favour.”

However, senior IAS officer Ashok Khemka, Principal Secretary, Archives, Archaeology and Museums department, says: “How conveyance deeds were issued of the government land in favour of the encroachers is a matter of thorough investigation. This entire rehabilitation reeks of a huge multi-crore scam.”

Sonu, who said that his great grandfather had built a house in Ther and he is the fourth generation in his family who was born and brought up in Ther before being removed in 2017, added: “We are daily wagers. It costs us Rs 50 daily to reach the main part of Sirsa and search for our daily jobs. If we do not get work that day, we are not even left with any money to hire an auto or a rickshaw to come back home.”

How the matter reached HC

It was in 1997, when a Civil Writ Petition was filed in the High Court by a Punjab resident Munshi Ram against state of Punjab. Later, the HC directed to treat the petition in larger “public interest”. On May 31, 2007, HC directed Punjab, Haryana and Union of India to submit list of “protected monuments, the status reports and photographs of the sites. ASI filed an affidavit along with the list of monuments in Punjab and Haryana. State governments too filed status reports.

Disposing of the case, HC gave directions on October 4, 2008 and ordered that ASI and Deputy Commissioners of districts in Punjab and Haryana shall get ancient or protected monuments or property attached thereto retrieved from encroachers in accordance with the law.

The HC had also ordered that the ASI, with the assistance of the district administration shall further ensure that no part of the ancient or protected monument in possession of the encroachers or otherwise is damaged, defaced, altered or impaired, till such encroachments are removed. A deadline of September 30, 2009 was also set.

From there, the district administration of Sirsa began the legal procedures, sending show cause notices to encroachers, using revenue, municipal and police resources to remove encroachers, but faced stiff resistance on the ground. As the district administration failed to comply with the High Court’s orders, contempt proceedings were initiated against the then Deputy Commissioner of Sirsa, J Ganeshan, in 2012.

It was in 2016, when Haryana government also tried to “de-notify” Ther Mound’s land taking it out of the ambit of ASI’s protected monument tag. Acting on the legal opinion given by the then Additional Advocate General, Haryana, government issued a notification “denotifying” Ther Mound on July 19, 2016. “Governor of Haryana, hereby declares that the ancient monument Ther Mound, Sirsa has ceased to be a protected monument,” a notification issued on July 19, 2016 reads.

The government’s move, however, did not find much favour with the High Court that ordered a “stay” on the government’s notification and the protected site could never be denotified.

Several hearings have taken place and due to the tough stance taken by the High Court reiterating that unauthorised occupants of the Ther Mound be removed from the site, the state government is now in an overdrive mode to formulate a fool-proof plan, remove encroachers and take over the entire 82 acres of the Ther Mound. The case is now coming up for hearing on Tuesday.