DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A minister on rampage

There are very few Indian politicians who are sensitive to history or, for that matter, to nature, wildlife or environment and other similar branches of administration that take a little refinement in one’s persona. Game parks and nature reserves for them are a waste of good fertile lands. Likewise, protecting wildlife is a wasteful effort as they require forests that, again, have to be maintained and if clean-felled could yield minerals or agricultural products. Similarly, maintenance of old, ill-kept hundreds of years old historical structures with fine stone-work and other embellishments are for them futile and wasteful effort. These, generally, situated close to or inside old cities could for them be demolished and made available for public use. That they are of historical value and are beautiful and sublime heritage of the city or a region, depicting its past culture, exhibiting its earlier way of life through their peculiar and contrived architecture is of no concern to them.

Many may not believe all this as these would seem to belittle our present-day rulers. But all these are evident in the central Indian city of Bhopal which, though not in the same league as Agra, Delhi or Jaipur in respect of heritage buildings, possesses beautiful examples of late-medieval Islamic architecture and a millennium-old lake. Both are in for some damage in the near future as Babu Lal Gaur, Minister for Urban Administration and Development in the provincial government seems to be on rampage. In his earlier avatars as a minister of the same department he was known as “the bulldozer” for having bulldozed all the encroachments. He did a lot of good work by removing unauthorised structures on public property. Of late, he seems to have assumed the same role and, that too, with vigour. However, this time it looks somewhat sinister as the natural and man-made heritage have been chosen for attack.

After having lavished his attention to New Bhopal by upgrading three of its roads he has turned his attention to Old Bhopal, presumably to appear fair to the denizens of the neglected, congested and the dusty Old City. But it is turning out to be somewhat of a setback for the city’s heritage. The Old City is congested and crowded because it has grown, unlike the new city, over the past centuries from a nucleus and it is, quite naturally, littered with heritage structures. The governments, having little sense of history, have mindlessly demolished most of them during the last few decades. The ones now picked up for demolition are those which had managed to escape the JCB machines and have now received Gaur’s attention. Among them are one remaining gate out of around six of the original Walled City built in early 18th Century, Sheesh Mahal, a historical palace in a complex that is known as Royal Ensemble, representative of the distinctive nawabi-era fusion-architecture of Bhopal, built in middle of 19th Century and a British structure of 1862 housing a post office located in the busy Jumerati area. All these are to come under the axe to provide space for parking.

Most unfortunately Gaur made a statement that the structures in question were not of heritage status as these were not listed as such with the Archaeological Department according to what an official of this Department accompanying him had told him. It is surprising as according to a senior postal official the Archaeological Department have planted a placard in front of the post office indicating that it is a monument of historic importance. As regards Sheesh Mahal and Jumerati Gate any imbecile would say that these have to be none other than protected structures. If the three structures are really not listed as protected monuments in the records of the Archaeological Department the records should be updated otherwise action needs to be taken against the official who misled the minister.

Worse in one of his statements Gaur aggressively questioned the “intellectuals” as to where they were when the structures were crumbling. Unfortunately Gaur seems to forget that maintenance of the city’s heritage is one of the prime mandates of the government which has not been fulfilled by his past colleagues in the governments over the last few decades. However, but for citizens’ chorus, which I too had joined, restoration of Taj Mahal would not have commenced and Gauhar Mahal would not have survived. In fact, Gaur is reported to have desired demolition of Taj Mahal’s at one time and Digvijay Singh wanted to raze Gauhar Mahal for raising a shopping mall. Even earlier, refugees from Pakistan were shoved into the glorious Taj Mahal like cattle, then a recently inherited palace from a feudal Nawab, and that’s when the maximum damage was caused to it.

But, it must be handed to Gaur; no minister moves around as he does most mornings of the week with whole jing-bang of officials, issuing directions for improvement of the town. During his several of such trips the Upper Lake came in for special attention. Directions were given on the spot for creating several boat clubs all around the Lake, construction of jetties and a bridge right across the Lake to the Takia Island and planting of some more fountains in the Lake - not for oxygenation of the waters, but to attract tourists. Then, he ordered erection of a statue somewhere in or around the Lake of revered Raja Bhoj who bestowed the Lake to the town a millennium ago and parking a decommissioned naval ship. This would mean another hideous statue going up, like several others ‘decorating’ the cross roads and a, reportedly, rotting naval vessel due for ship-breakers to be transplanted to the Upper Lake to pollute it further.

Gaur’s enthusiasm for attracting tourists to the Lake is admirable but he, from all knowledgeable accounts, is overdoing things – mostly to the detriment of the Lake and the people who depend on it for succour. He should know that being an important source of drinking water tourists should be kept as far away as possible from the Lake.

What is more, his own department of Urban Administration had “expressions of interest” invited on a global basis for development and conservation of the Upper Lake keeping in view the provisions of the Ramsar Convention, especially those relating to “wise use” of the Lake. For Gaur, who is the Minister in-charge of the Department that is processing the proposals received in this regard, to issue fiats of the kind he did was highly improper as the assessors of the proposals are likely to get inhibited from making honest assessments.

It seems the time has come to stop Gaur in his tracks and prevent him from causing more damage to the town’s persona. There’s going to be more work for the citizens who will have to remain vigilant and active.
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