CIC: Transparency can save Taj Mahal
Let the people scrutinize the measures to protect the beauty of Taj Mahal. The RTI is the tool and eye for that scrutiny. But the Archeology Department should disclose the information. Are they ready to help? Latest second appeal before the Central Information Commission shows ASI is not willing to share the information. Two Archeological Survey of India officers were fined by CIC for not furnishing details of structures and colonies within 500 meters of Taj Mahal. The CIC observed if people do not know the specifications of properties and demarcation of 500 meters range, it will leave scope for authorities exploiting from illegal structures and threatening even innocents. In an order dated 30 May 2017, CIC penalized two officers for not providing the information in spite of its directions.
RTI applicant Bhim Singh Sagar had sought from the ASI specific details of houses, roads, residential colonies etc., within demarcation of 500 meters border from the east to south gate of the Taj Mahal as notified. The ASI said it did not have any such details with it.
When 500 meters area was demarcated for the purposes of protection of the historic monument, the concerned agency ASI is expected to have the records about colonies and structures within that demarcated area.
ASI does not have records!
Surprisingly, ASI said they do not have records and directed the applicant to approach the Agra Development Authority. How can they say that they do not have the records? If they do not have such elementary record, how do they prevent illegal structures and secure the existing structures? The appellant’s narrative presents the difficulties of the residents in the vicinity of Taj Mahal, and what he sought was the details of the structures within demarcation. This information is essential for the people to know physical limits within which the construction restrictions apply to secure the beauty aesthetics and structure of Taj Mahal. Non-disclosure of this information facilitates the corruption by both ASI and Agra Development Authority, because their staff can threaten every essential repair or maintenance as illegal construction as harmful to Taj Mahal, or encourage illegal structures for any illegal purpose. They should have such information and that should be accessible to the people. The ASI has to coordinate with ADA and list out exact contents of residential colonies within 500 meters, which are essential for the department to perform its statutory duty and also to ensure the compliance of the law by the people to protect the monument. Hence the Commission thought the denial of information sought would be very harmful.
The Risks around the Wonder
It is a known fact that the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It attracts around 3 million visitors a year from all over the world. In the recent past, several alarming cases have come to light threatening the aesthetic beauty of the Taj Mahal. The Hon’ble Supreme Court and NGT heard issues such as tree felling in the eco-sensitive zone near the 17th century mausoleum, on a plot which was about 2.4 km
away from monument’s boundary, illegal constructions in and around the white marble mausoleum, construction for residential and commercial purposes in the green belt and agricultural land within 100 meters of the boundary of the monument, etc. The courts in such cases have directed State Government of Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) and Archaeological Survey of India to submit reports on illegal construction Agra in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) near the boundary of the Taj Mahal.
In a PIL filed by reputed environmental Advocate M C Mehta, the Supreme Court on November 17, 2015 sent a clear warning to Uttar Pradesh government not to allow destruction of the aesthetic beauty of the Taj Mahal by poor quality of constructions around. The bench of Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice C. Nagappan issued notice to the ASI in petition where Indian Tourism Development Corporation was seeking no-traffic zone around Taj and better tourist management steps. The bench asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to respond whether UP government project was in consonance with the aesthetic beauty of Taj. A bench of Justices T S Thakur and C Nagappan questioned the state government for not giving due attention to the finesse of the work and “messing up” the beauty of Taj Mahal, while perusing pictures of construction of a road on its back side. The Bench commented: “With chisel and hammer people created this wonder but today with all facilities and scientific knowledge you are not able to match the beauty of medieval time”.
Ban on constructions
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the Ministry of Culture, is the premier organization responsible for maintenance and protection of ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance. The ASI Act 2010 imposes a blanket ban on all construction within specified restricted areas (or prohibited zone) of any monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and allows limited construction in the next 200 meters (regulated zone). Regulated area means an area near or adjoining a protected monument which the Central Government has, by notification in the official gazette, declared to be a regulated area, for purposed of mining operation or construction of both. No person other than an archaeological officer shall undertake any construction in a regulated area. No person including the owner or occupier of a protected area, shall utilize protected area or any part thereof in any other manner without the permission of the Central Government, and whoever contravene it shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees or with both, as per Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Declaration of National Importance) Act, 1951 read with by section 126 of the States Reorganization Act, 1956.
533 illegal constructions
A news channel reported quoting a release by the Archaeological Survey of India, in response to an RTI application, that a total of 533 illegal constructions have taken place in the entire Agra circle, out of which 46 have come up in Taj Ganj area. Many of these unauthorized constructions have taken place at a mere 100 meter distances from the Taj Mahal despite the directive issued by Supreme Court that prohibits any construction within 500 meters of the monument. Assistant Secretary Jamat-e-Islami Hind, Mr. Intizar Naeem, said: “ASI has only given the information about illegal construction in Agra circle but no information has been given on what steps were taken against the people responsible or to remove the construction”. Mr. Rajkumar Singh, chief of ‘Paryatak Ghat Samiti’, an organization working for preservation of Taj Mahal said that many agitations have taken place in the past regarding illegal constructions around Taj Mahal but no concrete steps were taken by the ASI and the administration to curb this”. (www.ndtv.com/agra-news/illegal-constructions-mar-taj-mahals-beauty-507674)
Damaging Algal Growth
There is another risk to Taj Mahar within 500 meters. According to a report of St John’s College, the polluted Yamuna River has been reduced to a swamp with heavy algal growth and deposit of phosphorus (from ash), which form the primary source of food for this species of insect. The rising pollution level of the Yamuna is now a major threat to the Taj Mahal. Swarms of bugs called Goeldichironomus, which are breeding on its stagnant water, are infesting the marble walls of the monument. The result is greenish black patches on several places on the intricate floral inlay works and ledges of this 17th century marvel. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is concerned about the bug threat, but its officials said that their purview is limited within the walls of the monument. The insect attack is largely concentrated within a radius of 500 meters, including the back of the Taj (which is the worst affected), and partially on the sides facing the Mosque and that of Mehmaankhaana (royal guest house). A series of marble panels depicting plant motifs on the walls or reflective tiles used in this part of the monument are getting disfigured by such bug related depositions.
Dr. Girish Maheshwari, Head of the Department of Entomology at St John’s College in Agra, said the feasible solution lies in the “prevention of eutrophication of the water and the sediments of the river Yamuna near Taj Mahal”. Eutrophication refers to slow aging process of a river/water body, resulting in its deterioration to bog or marsh. Highly eutrophic water of the river impacts on the population of small fishes, which are considered predators of the larvae of this insect. There is hardly any fish/aquatic life in the Yamuna today, his report said. This concerned stretch of the river, lies at a stone’s throw distance from the back side of Taj. (www.dailypioneer.com/todays-newspaper/putrid-yamunas-bugs-eating-up-taj-mahal.html)
Taj Trapezium Zone
Therefore, safeguarding the cultural heritage would include prohibiting such actions that would adversely affect aesthetic value of such monuments. As the courts have held ASI apart from other civic bodies responsible for maintenance of the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), they cannot escape such accountability in this particular case.
A media report dated 17 March 2017 stated that an association working for protection of Taj Mahal had written a one-page letter to the NGT alleging that illegal construction activity of a hotel and resort in Agra was being undertaken in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) near the eastern gate of Taj Mahal. It said that one person had allegedly cut 20-25 trees in an area of 12,000 sq feet for building a hotel and when the matter was brought to the notice of the Agra Development Authority, it turned a deaf year to the whole issue. Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) has told the NGT that construction activity in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) near the eastern gate of Taj Mahal has been sealed by Agra Development Authority as the representative could not show any permission or licence from any department for construction of the restaurant. This shows that there are illegal constructions around the Taj Mahal and the authorities need to act.
The information sought by the appellant has to be published by the public authority on its own, under Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act, to secure the objective and purpose of ASI Act, or to perform duties prescribed by that Act to protect the historic monument. Besides placing in website the details of structures, colonies and roads within 500 meters, specifying the borders wherein illegal constructions will be checked, public authority is also expected to keep certain printed copies for easy reference and verification by common people who do not have access to internet. The information to be disclosed under this category also shall include periodical updates of action taken on illegal structures, fines imposed or buildings demolished if any out of 533 illegal structures mentioned by ASI in response to another RTI request, how many structures were removed, action taken in these cases and also illegal structures with Taj Trapezium Zone.
The Commission directed the CPIO of Agra Development Authority, ADA to prepare a note on details sought by the appellant, in coordination with the ASI, provide the same to the appellant and publish on the websites of ADA and ASI Agra.
The Commission directed the CPIO of Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board to disclose what steps it has taken to prevent eutrophication in Yamuna River affecting the marble beauty of Taj Mahal, and to avoid the threat of Goeldichironomus swarm of bug emanating from Yamuna River. The ASI is expected to coordinate with ADA and UPPCB to prepare above referred information for disclosure under RTI Act.