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Letting Agra's historical buildings breathe, again
Friday October 25, 2013 11:23 AM, Brij Khandelwal, IANS

Agra district authorities have announced plans to demolish all encroachments and illegal structures and remove squatters within the premises of, or uncomfortably near, historical monuments in this tourist city.

Agra district magistrate Zuher Bin Saghir Thursday said a committee had been formed, and senior police officials would join the demolition drive within a week. He said the Supreme Court orders in the matter were clear and unambiguous and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had been asked to identify and mark all illegal structures to be pulled down.

Zonal magistrates will videograph the encroachments. People will get a week's time to move out or voluntarily demolish structures constructed in breach of law.

"After a week, no one will be spared," the district magistrate warned.

Conservationists have expressed alarm that illegal structures have mushroomed around historical monuments in the city that was the capital of the Mughal empire between 1556 and 1658. The city administration has done little to curb squatter settlements and the structures now pose a threat to many of the lesser known but historically significant monuments.

As land prices skyrocket, builders have been making a beeline to usurp every inch of available space in the city.

R. Nath, a Mughal historian and author of a book on the city, said there used to be "more than 240 monuments in and around Agra at the time of independence, but now fewer than 50 are in existence". He has also written several letters to the ASI in this regard but seen little change.

"Conservation and preservation have to be a joint venture between government agencies and people's organisations. It is not always possible to police all monuments," Amit Mukerjea, head of the history department of St. John's College, told IANS.

Among the monuments that disappeared are Christian cemeteries, as land once left vacant for the interment of the dead has been taken over by colonisers and government town planners.

The city looked better planned and maintained in the 1960s and 1970s than today, say old-time residents, pleading that a plethora of modern development bodies and urban planning agencies has only served to make a mess of the Mughal metropolis.

Ram Bagh near the river Yamuna, the oldest Mughal garden in India, laid in 1528 by the founder of the Mughal empire, Babur, and the tomb of Mariam, Akbar's Rajput wife and mother of Jahangir, near Sikandra, are among the historically significant spots threatened by encroachment.

Also in need of clearing are Mughal-era gardens like Bagh Farzana and Begum Samru's garden. Once these are restored, there is likelihood that they will even draw many of the tourists who visit the Taj Mahal.

Even though ASI routinely sends notices to the district administration about construction and encroachment, no action is taken. Police, too, look the other way, allowing land grabbers free rein.

Mukerjea explained that open spaces around the monuments were part of the design, to provide green cover to the buildings, and these had fallen prey to encroachment.

Historians and conservationists lament the indifference to the monuments among residents of the city. There is need to foster pride in monumental heritage, they say.

"The youth must play a more active role to prevent damage to heritage. District authorities should draw up plans to instil a sense of belonging and a passion for conservation," said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

The "Safer and Better Agra" group, in a memorandum to Uttar Pradesh Tourism and the Agra Municipal Corporation, demanded firm action against encroachers.

Col. (retd) Rajesh Chauhan, who serves as the convener of the group, told IANS that the ASI was approached to rid historical monuments of encroachers.

"Action should start with politicians who have gobbled public land. Our community ponds have disappeared, and multi-storey buildings have been built. The whole of Sanjay Place commercial complex is overwhelmed by encroachments," Anand Rai, an activist, told IANS.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at

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