Fingers pointed at ASI as stone slab falls at Taj

December 27th, 2008 - 12:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Agra, Dec 27 (IANS) Conservationists here have reacted sharply after a seven-foot-long slab of red sandstone fell off at the Taj Mahal this week. Is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) - responsible for the upkeep of historical monuments - doing its job, they are asking.Luckily, “there was no one around, otherwise there would have been a grim tragedy,” said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

The slab fell close to the booking window at the eastern gate of the Taj at 6 a.m. Wednesday. The ASI has so far tried to explain away the incident by saying that iron rods under the slab had rusted.

But historians and other experts in the city say ASI staffers are simply not paying enough attention to the maintenance of monuments.

“Corruption in the ranks (of the ASI) will one day eat into the vitals of these monuments. They have not been following the guidelines regarding conservation measures in the 1923 Marshall’s manual. Instead of using original texture and raw materials they are using white cement to plaster walls and painting them red with geru powder,” said an eminent Mughal historian.

A private contractor supplying stones for renovation said: “Good quality red sandstone is not being used, instead the Fatehpur Sikri stone is being used extensively as it is cheaper and allows people to take cuts and commissions. But it is of substandard quality.”

If a star world heritage monument like the Taj Mahal cannot be maintained according to classical norms described in the ASI manuals, it is time to review the existing framework within which official conservationists operate, suggests historian Amit Mukherjea.

Allegations have regularly been hurled against top officials of the ASI that they indulge in corrupt practices, promote black marketing of tickets and fail to involve the local populace in the restoration and upkeep of heritage monuments.

Even its expertise in conservational work has been questioned. Local tourism industry leaders like Rakesh Chauhan and Sandeep Arora want the ASI to play a more proactive role and assert its authority rather than playing into the hands of vested interests.

Local historians have pointed out dozens of structures in Agra that need immediate attention and repairs.

“Our total approach has been Taj-centric, paying scant attention to other historical monuments like Babar’s Ram Bagh or Chini ka Roza. Several important monuments, including the Jami Masjid of Agra and the tomb of Rasul Shah in Fatehpur Sikri, have been neglected,” adds history scholar Shipra.

Perhaps the most alarming lapse has been the ASI’s abject failure to rid the monuments of illegal structures and encroachments. The 1958 Act gives it sweeping powers but the mandarins in the ASI have never had the will to act.

Most smaller protected monuments in Agra - and there are scores of them - have been virtually overwhelmed by new structures which threaten their existence. Delhi Gate, Etmauddaula, Sikandra, Ram Bagh and dozens of others have been dwarfed by encroachments.

In the Civil Courts premises, new structures have come up close to Jhunjhun Maqbara, a protected monument. In another protected monument on Mathura road, Salaawat Khan’s tomb (chausanth khamba), new additions have been made and iron grills placed, apparently violating the original design of the monument.

In the Agra Fort whole walls have been cement plastered instead of using the original “chuna” (cement). “It presents such a gaudy sight when you see such thoughtless conservation work,” comments Hari Dutt Sharma, a mediaperson.

The controversial Taj Corridor issue is still hanging fire with the ASI showing hardly any interest in clearing up the debris or greening the 80-acre patch in the river Yamuna between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.

As part of the corridor, the area between Agra Fort and the Taj on the riverbed was to be developed as an amusement park with a shopping complex, but it was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2003 after conservationists raised a hue and cry.

“It (the debris) is an eyesore between two world heritage monuments but the ASI is least bothered about cleaning up the mess,” says tourist guide Shabir.

Historians and conservationists in Agra feel the ASI should be in the hands of professional conservationists, people who are passionate about their job.

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