The government has approved changes to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958 to allow “public works” near these structures. If Parliament clears these amendments, national monuments will be threatened.
When we think of the iconic monuments in India, images of the Taj Mahal, Ajanta Caves, The Great Stupa at Sanchi and the Sun Temple of Konark, among others, come to mind. But there are thousands of amazing historical treasures in our country. My home city, Pune, has the eighth century rock-cut temple of Pataleshwar, the more “modern” Aga Khan Palace — which blends several architectural styles — and the resting place of Kasturba Gandhi, as well as the Shaniwar Wada, the epicentre of the mighty Maratha empire.
All these are designated as “ancient monuments of national importance” and protected under the AMASR Act. The Archaeological Survey of India is the custodian of these monuments. That these monuments are in trouble is no secret.
Despite its rhetoric about protecting and promoting the ancient culture and civilisation of India, the government has decided to dilute an important piece of legislation that was passed when the UPA held office at the Centre. During the UPA regime, there was a realisation that protecting critically threatened monuments was becoming difficult.
Encroachments and illegal construction close to these monuments were happening on a large-scale and the penal provisions in the AMASR Act for endangering ancient monuments were not stringent enough to provide effective deterrence. As a result of the increased pressure of habitation, especially in urban areas, protected monuments and sites were getting hemmed in from all sides. This affected their safety, security and aesthetics. The AMASR Act was substantially amended in 2010 to strengthen several of its provisions.
The main features of the amendments were the creation of a “prohibited area” 100 metres around every national monument where no construction, public or private is permitted, “regulated area” 200 metres beyond the prohibited area, where any construction requires permission of a newly constituted National Monuments Authority. Given the unique nature of each monument, the Act also proposed heritage bye-laws for each monument to be prepared by an expert body.
The UPA government’s decision to designate a 100-metre prohibited perimeter around every monument was upheld by the Supreme Court of India. Responding to a Delhi High Court verdict, the apex court in Archaeological Survey of India vs Narender Anand And Ors,opined, “High Court’s anxiety to maintain a balance between the dire necessity of protecting historical monuments of national and international importance and development of infrastructures is understandable, but it is not possible to approve the fiat issued to the Central Government to review the prohibition contained in the notification.
The notification was issued by the Central Government for implementing the policy enshrined in Article 49 of the Constitution and the 1958 Act i.e. to preserve and protect ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance”.
The Court went on to say: “The Central Government must have issued said notification after consulting experts in the field and keeping in view the object of the 1958 Act. Therefore, in the name of development and accommodating the need for multi-storied structures, the High Court could not have issued a mandamus to the Central Government to review/reconsider the notification and that too by ignoring that independence large number of protected monuments have been facing the threat of extinction and if effective steps are not taken to check the same, these monuments may become part of history.”
The National Monuments Authority has been steadfast in refusing permission for construction within the prohibited areas despite tremendous pressure from private companies, and even the government. But the government in its zeal to push “development” at any cost — social, environmental or cultural — has proposed to dilute the AMASR Act.
It must be kept in mind that any construction, whether for a public project or private purpose, will pose risks to a monument. Allowing an exception for “public works” will open a Pandora’s Box, and it will be all but impossible for the National Monuments Authority or the Archaeological Survey of India to ensure that such construction do not pose a threat to a monument.
Public works are more often than not very large infrastructure projects. Allowing these in the immediate vicinity of a protected monument will defeat the very purpose of the AMASR Act and will be a violation of Article 49 of the Constitution.
The writer is an advocate and Rajya Sabha MP from the Nationalist Congress Party