Day by day the Shree Jagannath Temple corridor development project in Puri is going through controversy after controversy. It seems like the development project is nothing but a series of controversial events. On May 16, a huge ancient broken stone sculpture resembling a lion was discovered during digging and excavation works on the premises of the historic Emar Mutt in Puri.
The famous Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha is a centrally protected monument under the ASI’s care, the 100 metre radius around its perimeter is considered inviolate in which no construction can come up as per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and validation) Act without the nod of the National Monuments Authority (NMA). As per NMA norms, a heritage impact assessment study is a must for developmental work around any monument of archaeological importance with a built-up area of over 5,000 square metres. The Jagannath temple is spread over 43,301 sq metres.
Why is it in Controversy? What are these controversies?
Demolition of Heritage Mutts
In 2019, when the Odisha government announced a slew of infrastructure projects to develop Puri into a world heritage city a demolition drive was being carried out in Puri that has resulted in a massive controversy. In the name of beautification, some of the most sacred mutts of Puri such as Emar Matha, Mangu Matha, Bada Akhada Matha, Languli Matha, Uttar Parshwa Matha and Dakshin Parswa Matha have been demolished and razed on to the ground.
The mathas not only have a deep association with the niti kanti (a daily ritual) of the temple, some of them also play an important part during various festivals of the Lord including the annual Ratha Jatra. Some of these mathas were even founded up by Guru Nanak and Ramanujacharya.
The mathadheesh of already demolished Emar Matha, Rajagopal Das had once said during the demolition drive, “Only during the reigns of Islamic tyrants, Hindu religious institutions were destroyed in such a manner.”
“The demolitions have a larger and more sinister motive and are a conspiracy against Sanatana Dharma”, Puri Shankaracharya Swamy Nischalananda Saraswati of the Gobardhan Peeth has said once regarding this.
Bagala Dharmasala Land Controversy
Bagala Dharmasala was a famous Dharmasala in the Puri town. This was donated by a devotee of Rajasthan for accommodating poor pilgrims and as per law; it cannot be used for any other purpose or transferred by any means.
The Dharmasala had 56 rooms, 9 huge dormitories to provide shelter to poor pilgrims and two ponds – one for drinking water requirements and another for other purposes. Subsequently, the Lodging House Fund Committee, a body managed by Puri Dist Admin who was managing Bagala Dharmasala, had added another 18 rooms to the structure.
Initially, it was planned to rebuild the dilapidated Dharmasala and construct Jagannath Bishramasthali at a cost of Rs 18 crore. To implement this project, old structures were demolished. But between August 5 and August 12 of 2019, the Puri administration sold around 35 decimals (12.23 per cent of the total area) to six lodge owners who were evicted from near the Shri Jagannath Temple to create the 75-metre-wide security corridor. The six persons who received plots in Bagala Dharmasala had also allegedly received compensation in crores of rupees under a one-time settlement.
In the Bagala Dharmasala land controversy, the State Government and Puri administration find themselves on a sticky wicket because the Collector, apparently, has no power to sell any property of the Dharmasala of which, he is a trustee.
In fact, when the Odisha Bridge Construction Corporation (OBCC) applied to the PKDA (Puri Konark Development Authority) for approval of the plot layout plan on the Dharmasala land, the administration’s alleged attempt to sell the Bagala Dharmasala land to hoteliers and people displaced by the corridor project came to light.The entire land was divided into 26 plots, but the plan has not yet been approved by the State Government or PKDA.
Illegal Heavy Digging Around Temple
The state-run firm OBCC, which is the implementing agency of the project, started digging in February this year to lay concrete foundation for the amenities such as toilets, a reception centre and cloakrooms. As the excavators started scooping up earth up to 20 ft to 30 ft around the temple, the conservation assistant of ASI in Puri in February sent a letter to the state government asking it to stop since it was violating the archaeological sites law. The ASI also asked the state government to produce approvals to carry out the excavation work. However, neither the Dist Administration nor the implementing agency ever heard from ASI.
Experts and devotees are in fear that such deep digging just close to the temple will pose a serious threat to the 12th-century shrine and the Meghanad Prachira (outer wall). Even holes as deep as 20 to 25 ft are being dug up at several places within a 50-metre radius of Meghanad Prachira using earth-moving machines and excavators.
This has raised concern among people who apprehend that vibrations may impact the structural stability of the monument. Because Puri is located on the seashore, its geological structure is made up of sand type soils. Digging in such close proximity should have been preceded by a proper assessment which both the central agencies, ASI and NMA, claim to have no knowledge about.
Illegal Construction Activities
Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) norms do not allow any construction within the 100-metre prohibited zone of the centrally-protected archaeological sites, except only basic amenities such as toilets and cloakrooms. But currently, many huge structures are being constructed around the temple. Out of these under-construction structures, very few of them are toilets and cloakrooms but what are the rest structures for, nobody knows.
The state-owned Odisha Bridge Construction Corporation (OBCC) is the executive agency of the project while the construction work is being carried out by Tata Project. The construction company engaged for works near the Srimandir generally is involved in constructing bridges, erecting buildings, etc. They don’t have expertise and experience in heritage conservation related works. JCB machines are being used to dig up the area within the Centrally-protected shrine’s prohibited zone (100 mt) to set up public amenities. Work is being carried out beyond 7 metres from the Meghnad Prachir, which is the buffer zone of the temple.
Project Carried Out Without Permission
An affidavit was filed in the Orissa High Court in response to a PIL, raising concerns over the construction activities being undertaken within the prohibited area of the Shree Jagannath temple in Puri. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in its report submitted in Orissa High Court said that the required permissions for the project were not granted.
The ASI through the affidavit submitted before the High Court clearly mentioned that it has not given its nod for any type of excavation or construction work in the 100-metre prohibited area around the Jagannath Temple as per the guidelines of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958.
Concerns Regarding Archaeological Remains
In its affidavit filed in the Orissa High Court, the ASI said archaeological remains of the heritage site may have been destroyed during the excavation. It said the removal of about 20 to 30 ft. of stratified deposit has caused irreparable damage to the heritage site, stressing that the state officials were clueless about the method of soil removal.
The ASI also added that there were deviations in plan and elevation as well as in the project design with heights of various structural units increased and the addition of more units. Besides, the foundation trench for a reception centre has been excavated within the prohibited limit in gross violation of the AMASR Act.
No Heritage Impact Assessment Studies & No Ground Penetrating Radar Survey
“No Heritage Impact Assessment studies have been conducted before the commencement of the project. No Ground Penetrating Radar Survey (GPRS) has been conducted to ascertain the archaeological & historical importance lying buried in the subsoil of a 75 metre radius (Construction Zone) of Centrally Protected Monuments”, ASI said in its fact-finding inspection report.
“The Managing Director of the executing agency OBCC has further informed that there are deviations in plan & elevation as well as in the project design, which they have already submitted to NMA on 15 July 2021 and a presentation made before the NMA on 17 August 2021. In the revised proposal height of various structural units had been increased and more units had been added”, ASI informed the HC finding out further irregularities in the Parkrama project.
What happens now?
The case in Orissa high court has now been posted for hearing on June 22 with the two judge bench headed by chief justice S Muralidhar asking the state government to file an affidavit. Though the high court has not stayed the ongoing construction work, the ASI’s affidavit that the construction work in the prohibited zone of the temple may have damaged archaeological remains of the heritage sites has given ammunition to the government’s critics. The temple project also could receive a setback if the court arrives at an adverse conclusion about the steps taken before launching the project.
Defying all criticism, construction work for the controversial corridor project has been going on in Puri. While initial legal battles to stop this project were unsuccessful, as the High Court kept silent about any stay on the work, there is another petition that is being heard at the Supreme Court that seeks to temporarily halt the construction activities.