Ahead of the polls, several citizens’ groups have asked candidates of various political parties to support their demand for heritage city status to Agra visited by millions of tourists every year.
Party candidates are being asked to clarify their stand on various issues that concern the development of this historic city.
As the city celebrates World Heritage Day Friday, questions have also been raised about the poor conservation efforts and the failure of authorities to rid the three World Heritage monuments (the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri) of ugly encroachments.
Historians, conservationists and activists met at a round table conference Thursday organised by the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society. They expressed concern at the indifference shown by the city administration to check encroachments which were not only disfiguring the historical ambience but were also threatening some valuable structures that were less known but historically important.
“The Archaeological Survey of India was dragging its feet in implementing its own rules as well as the directives of the Supreme Court of India, in respect to new constructions and maintenance of the older ones,” said Surendra Sharma, president of the society.
With land prices sky-rocketing, and builders of all sorts making a beeline to usurp every inch of available space in the city, the survival of many of the smaller and less known structures has become uncertain, according to social activist Netra Pal Singh.
Before independence there used to be “more than 240 monuments in and around Agra but now fewer than 50 exist”, Sharma said. “Who has gobbled up all these symbols of history, the pride of India?” asked concerned members of the society.
“Conservation and preservation have to be a joint venture of government agencies and people’s organisations, as it was not always possible to police all the monuments,” Amit Mukerjea, head of the history department, St John’s College, told IANS.
A large number of monuments including Christian cemeteries have disappeared, their land acquired by colonisers and government town planners. “The Protestant cemetery in Bagh Farzana has almost disappeared with a dozen shops mushrooming around it,” said Mukerjea.
The city looked better planned and maintained in the 1960s and 70s than it does today, say the old timers, despite a plethora of development bodies and urban planning agencies which have actually made a mess of the Mughal metropolis.
Babar’s Ram Bagh across the river and Mariam’s tomb near Sikandra are just a few feeling the heat and being threatened by squatters. The Archaeological Survey of India routinely sends out notices but the district administration rarely takes any action.
Mukerjea said the open spaces around the monuments were deliberately left for gardens and green cover as these buildings were made to perfection with amazing geometrical precision.
While the local historians and voluntary groups have long been agitating for a heritage status for Agra, the governments at the state and centre have not shown any urgency in the matter. When the question was raised in the Supreme Court three years ago, the central government stated that the city did not deserve a heritage status because of its unplanned haphazard development.
This angered the urban planners and historians of the city who asked “whose fault was it that the city was not following the master plan and was growing haphazardly in all directions.”
Conservationists feel there are a “whole lot of contradictions in the government stand, because till date nobody has clarified which areas of the city come under the heritage description and which structures need conservation efforts,” historian R.C. Sharma told IANS.
“Yes, in the so called modern Agra there is evidence of haphazard planning and irrational growth, but then those are not the heritage pieces one would like preserved,” says N.R. Smith, a chronicler of Agra’s modern history.
“We have to begin by demarcating the areas as Mughal Agra, British Agra and the Agra Development Authority’s Agra. Only then can one go ahead with conserving the real heritage of the city of the Taj Mahal. And those who think people and their work places need to be demolished to make way for modern malls or parking slots are only hurting the spirit of conservation.”
Granting heritage city status to Agra, feel tourism industry leaders, will trigger a series of changes. It will ensure that foreign tourists prolong their stay in the city which abounds in monuments.