Agra, renowned for the majestic Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is battling a persistent issue of illegal constructions encroaching upon the monument’s sanctity. The recent exposé by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has shed light on the staggering count of 470 unauthorized establishments, including restaurants, cafes, and emporiums, within a restricted 500-meter radius of the historic Taj Mahal.
Despite repeated efforts by the ASI, local authorities have failed to address this pressing concern, allowing these encroachments to persist for decades. The ASI’s Director-General, in a striking move, dispatched a list of these illegal structures to the Uttar Pradesh government and district administration last year, urging immediate action for their removal.
In an exclusive statement to TOI, Raj Kumar Patel, the Superintending Archaeologist, emphasized the limitations of the ASI’s jurisdiction, clarifying that their role is restricted to lodging FIRs in cases of unauthorized construction around protected monuments. The ASI’s Director-General holds the authority to issue demolition notices, but it falls upon the Agra Development Authority (ADA) and the local administration to execute any subsequent actions.
Disturbingly, an ASI-approved tourist guide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed out the suspected involvement of local administration members in facilitating these illegal structures, allegedly motivated by under-the-table monetary gains from businesses operating within the encroachments.
Situation spiralling out of control
According to an ASI report, the situation has further deteriorated, with 248 new illegal constructions sprouting within the 100 to 300-meter radius of the protected monument and its immediate surroundings from 2015 to 2022. Shockingly, some of these constructions have intruded as close as 50 meters from the Taj Mahal, blatantly disregarding the strict regulations outlined under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act.
Underlining the severity of the issue, the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) Authority, in December 2017, submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court, reaffirming the declaration of a “no construction zone” within the 500-meter radius of the Taj Mahal. This measure was an imperative response to the Supreme Court’s 1996 directive, prompting the establishment of the TTZ authority to oversee the implementation of protective measures for the iconic Taj Mahal.
Responding to the mounting concerns, Ritu Maheshwari, the Divisional Commissioner, and the head of ADA and TTZ authority, assured TOI that she would thoroughly investigate the matter. She pledged to take prompt and decisive measures to eliminate the illegal constructions and encroachments surrounding the Taj Mahal and other historical monuments.
This revelation raises urgent questions about the effectiveness of the enforcement of heritage protection laws and the accountability of local authorities in safeguarding India’s invaluable cultural treasures. The necessity for swift and stringent action is now more apparent than ever to preserve the integrity and grandeur of the Taj Mahal for generations to come.