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Explained: What is the Puri Heritage Corridor Project and why has it landed into a controversy?

What is the Puri Heritage Corridor Project? What is the controversy about? What did the ASI affidavit state and how did the High Court respond? How has the state government responded? We explain.

Written by Aishwarya Mohanty , Edited by Explained Desk | Bhubaneswar |
May 18, 2022 1:16:22 pm
An aerial view of East Plaza, Heritage Security Zone

The ambitious Puri heritage corridor project of the BJD-led Odisha government has landed into a controversy. A recent affidavit filed by the Archaeological Survey of India in the Orissa High Court has further intensified the debate around the project.

What is the Puri Heritage Corridor Project?

Conceived in 2016, the Puri Heritage Corridor Project was unveiled in December 2019 to transform the town into an international place of heritage. The project includes redeveloping major portions of the town and in the vicinity of the temple for visitors and tourists. A resolution for the project was passed in the state assembly unanimously in February 2020 to begin the first phase of work estimated at a cost of Rs 800 crore. Following this, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) approved the architectural design plan of the project at an estimated cost of Rs 3,200 crore.

A total of 22 different projects will be executed in a phased manner. After the initial funds of Rs 800 crore from the state government’s Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture at Puri (ABADHA) scheme, another Rs 265 crore will be provided in the first phase.

The project includes Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) building redevelopment, a 600-capacity Srimandir reception centre, Jagannath cultural centre including Raghunandan library, integrated command, and control centre, Badadanda heritage streetscape, Srimandir amenities improvement, Sri Setu, Jagannath Ballav pilgrim centre, multilevel car parking, municipal market development, Swargadwar development, Pramod Udyan, Gurukulam, Mahodadhi market, beachfront development, Puri lake, Musa river revival plan, Atharnala and housing for sevayats.

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What is the controversy about?

The 12th century shrine is a centrally protected monument, with the ASI as its custodian. As per rules laid down under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and validation) Act, construction activities within a 100 metre around such a monument’s perimeter are restricted. Constructions can only be carried out with approval from the National Monuments Authority (NMA). The NMA, a body under the Union Ministry of Culture was set up under the provisions of AMSAR Act for the protection and preservation of monuments and sites through management of the prohibited and regulated area around the centrally protected monuments. One amongst these responsibilities of NMA is also to consider grant of permissions to applicants for construction related activity in the prohibited and regulated area.NMA guidelines suggest that a heritage impact assessment study is a must for developmental work around any monument of archaeological importance with a built-up area of over 5,000 square metre. The Jagannath temple is spread over 43,301.36 sq metre.

For the heritage project, the NMA had issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the state government on September 4, 2021 for the construction of a cloakroom, a shelter pavilion, three toilets, an electrical room and a pavement within the prohibited 75-metre zone. The NOC issued by NMA is with regard to the fact that the public amenities do not come under the definition of construction as per the AMASR Act and that NMA has no objection if the project is carried out under ASI’s supervision. However, no such NOC has been issued by the ASI.

After a visit by the Director General, ASI on February 21, 2022 to review the developmental works of the project, ASI wrote a letter to the state government on March 5, asking officials concerned to submit a revised proposal for the development around the Puri srimandir. “One point of discussion was the proposed reception centre which is at a distance of 75 metres from the temple (part falls under the prohibited area). The building is proposed to be used to hold devotees before they proceed to the main complex. Given that this would be very essential, it was decided that the state government would consider options to slightly move the building beyond 100 metres,” the letter stated, adding that moving the building beyond 100 metres would be good in the interest of security of the temple.

Who has raised the issue?

Multiple independent bodies like the lawyers association in Puri, locals, civil societies active in the holy town and even the BJP, have raised concerns around the structural structural stability of the 12th-century monument as JCB machines are being used to dig up the area within the 75 metre radius of the shrine to set up public amenities. BJP MP from Bhubaneswar Aparajita Sarangi had also raised the issue in Parliament. Sarangi had alleged illegality in the implementation of the project and claimed that the state government continued with its construction work in prohibited areas near Shree Jagannath Temple despite a letter to stop work issued by Archaeological Survey of India.

What did the ASI affidavit state and how did the High Court respond?

In its affidavit submitted in the high court on May 9, the ASI stated that the state government was undertaking the project’s construction work within the prohibited and regulated areas of the monument without valid permission. The court is hearing a PIL against the project, which has raised concerns over its impact on the Puri temple’s structural safety.

The ASI’s affidavit came after it undertook a joint inspection of the project site along with the state government officials on May 1 in pursuance of the court’s order. The joint team consisted of ASI functionaries as well as state government officials like the Puri collector and the Odisha Bridge and Construction Corporation (OBCC) managing director.

In response to the ASI’s stand, Advocate General Ashok Kumar Parija told the division bench of Chief Justice S Muralidhar and Justice R K Pattanaik that a no-objection certificate (NOC) was granted to the project by the Centre’s National Monuments Authority (NMA) on September 4, 2021. He also said the state government will file its reply to the ASI’s affidavit.

While posting the matter for next hearing on June 22, the court asked the state government to keep in view the ASI’s observations as and when it undertakes any further project work.

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How has the state government responded?

After the initial controversy surfaced, media advisor to the state government, Manas Mangraj, in a statement had said, “The Supreme Court of India supported the work of the Odisha Government and also directed the ASI to cooperate and permit these developmental activities.” The release further mentioned the Supreme Court order dated November 4, 2019 which read, “We place on record our appreciation that all stakeholders are happy with the development which is taking place at the instance of the State Government and they are cooperating with each other in restoration of the glory of Lord Shri. Jagannath Temple. We direct ASI also to cooperate and to permit the activities of improvement.”

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