New Delhi: Terming the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which permits construction in “prohibited areas" for public purposes, as “illogical and irrational", experts said it is like bowing down to builder mafia and will pose grave danger to thousands of monuments across the country.
The bill was passed by Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
The bill amends the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. According to PRS Legislative Research, the 1958 Act defines a “prohibited area" as an area of 100 metres around a protected monument or area and prohibits construction in such prohibited areas, except under certain conditions. The 1958 Act also prohibits construction in “prohibited areas" even if it is for public purposes. The central government can even extend the prohibited area beyond 100 metres, according to the Act.
However, the amendment bill says the bar on new construction within prohibited areas of a protected monument was adversely affecting various public works and developmental projects of the Central government.
It also seeks to define “public works", stating that it would include the construction of any infrastructure that is financed and carried out by the Central government for public purposes. This infrastructure must be necessary for public safety and security and must be based on a specific instance of danger to public safety, said PRS’s explanation about the bill.
“Also, there should be no reasonable alternative to carrying out construction in the prohibited area," PRS added.
Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma said in Parliament on Tuesday that the amendment bill will allow only government works to be carried out around monuments and no private work will be allowed. The bill is yet to be passed in the Rajya Sabha.
Experts, however, have their reservations.
“It is an illogical and irrational decision. Whether it is public or private infrastructure, the damage to monument will be same. Putting in place proper protection system for monuments is more critical and without that no such change is advisable," said urban design expert K.T. Ravindran, who is also the former chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission.
“The visual damage this step would bring will be enormous and nothing can justify it. There should be proper rationalized criteria on issue of skyline. It is done all over the world—there are restrictions to protect the visual line, flow of water and other natural systems. All these are very important issues. Not just the skyline, there are possibilities of damages to the foundation of monuments which have stood strong for thousands of years. The main issue is about protecting monuments," Ravindran added.
Similar concern was expressed by Congress during the passage of the bill. According to a PTI report, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury asked the government to reconsider the bill and send it at least to a standing committee. He asked who the government was trying to benefit by the move, and added that the relaxations will “open a Pandora’s box".
As per official records, there are about 3,600 monuments and sites under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which looks after their protection and maintenance. However, many such monuments are marred by encroachments.
Historian Sohail Hashmi said, “This bill places all our protected monuments under great peril."
“This bill will open the door for all kinds of construction (around protected monuments). There are many protected monuments across the country including in major cities and the builder lobby that has phenomenal clout doesn’t want these laws that protect monuments. It is under the pressure of builder lobby that this law has come. The present government does not care about preserving heritage at all. It is like surrendering to the builder lobby and is absolutely insensitive," said Hashmi.