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Above: People offer namaz at the tomb of Hazrat Amir Khusrau at the Nizamuddin Dargah complex/Photo: Bhavana Gaur

Alongside laws for conserving heritage, it is important to democratise the entire process, put people at the centre of all legal processes and compensate them for ouster from monuments’ vicinity

By Sohail Hashmi

The National Monuments Authority (NMA) has notified heritage bylaws for 10 monuments inside the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi that are on the list of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The bylaws will guide physical, social and economic interventions within 300 metres of the centrally protected monuments. Reports said that similar bylaws were notified for 17 monuments in the Sundar Nursery and Humayun’s Tomb complex a few weeks earlier.

The notifications were issued by the NMA under the Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR), 1958, as amended in 2010 and allow the framing of heritage bylaws and other functions. As per Section 20 (E) of AMASR Act, 2010, and Rule 18 of the NMA rules, heritage bylaws are required to be prepared in respect of each protected monument/protected site. A draft version of the bylaws is posted on the website of the NMA for information/ suggestions, which may be sent within 30 days from the date of uploading.

Broadly speaking, there are two questions that need to be raised in connection with the notice issued by the NMA. One is whether there is a need for site-specific bylaws and whether it is enough to put them on the NMA website. The answer to the first question is in the affirmative. Yes, there is need for such site-specific bylaws, primarily because no matter how comprehensive a law dealing with issues of conservation and protection might be, it can never visualise every obstacle that might crop up to obstruct these efforts. So site-specific solutions are required and any authority responsible for protecting our heritage needs to have the leeway to frame site-specific rules.

Let us look at the Act as it has progressed from the time when it was framed and the present stipulations of the law. Originally, there was a 50-yard prohibition on any construction in all directions from a protected monument. In 2010, the limit was extended to 100 metres, with a further limit of an additional 200 metres that was declared a regulated zone.

Markets bustle with activity inside the Nizamuddin Basti/Photo: Bhavana Gaur
Markets bustle with activity inside the Nizamuddin Basti/Photo: Bhavana Gaur

The implications of this can be seen through a concrete example—the 14th century Begumpur Mosque built by Maqbool Juna Shah Telangani, the vazir of Ferozeshah Tughlaq. When this mosque was placed on the protected list post-Independence, it was found that a large number of people had built their houses inside it. They were told to move out and asked to build their houses beyond the 50-yard limit. The mosque is now surrounded by houses on three sides; these are houses of those who were asked to vacate the mosque when it became a protected monument. One of the displaced was a little boy, his parents and grandparents. His grandparents built a house opposite the mosque, beyond the 50-yard limit and that is where this boy lived with his parents.

Let us move forward to 2012. Some of us, led by Prof Narayani Gupta, one of the founders of Delhi Heritage Society and a pioneer of heritage walks in Delhi, visited Begumpur because we had heard that there was some tension between the villagers and the ASI. Prof Gupta initiated the formation of “Friends of ASI” with a view to facilitating a dialogue between the villagers and the ASI. During our meetings with the village elders, we discovered that the villagers wanted to make additions to their houses but were not being permitted because now the area where construction was a no-no had been increased to 100 metres and they were inside the no-construction zone.

One of the people we met was a child of the late 1950s. He had studied, joined the Indian Air Force and was now retired. His grandson was to get married soon and he wanted to add a new room to his house for his grandson and his bride. He had been told that he could not do it. He was obviously frustrated and angry.

The baoli or stepwell located within the Nizamuddin Dargah complex/ Photo: Bhavana Gaur
The baoli or stepwell located within the Nizamuddin Dargah complex/ Photo: Bhavana Gaur

The point of this narration is to underscore the fact that there would be such situations at each step, we need to be sensitive to these human problems and no law or bylaw can solve them unless we democratise the entire process of lawmaking and the people have a say in the process.

We need to understand that the original law for protection of monuments (Act XX of 1863), like all laws prior to 1947, was framed by a colonial administration which treated the people as subjects if not as outright enemies of the state. Our lawmakers and the entire process of lawmaking in most former colonies continues to follow the same approach and unless we change this process, people like Singh (the child born inside the Begumpur Mosque) will continue to be at the receiving end. And there will be many like him in the Basti.

The question is, if there is a need, do we have a relocation plan, will they be given new houses, new occupations and new skills to cope with the new circumstances in their lives? If the bylaws have provided for all these contingencies and if sufficient funds have been earmarked and will be available as and when needed, no one will have any major problem. It may not be easy to convince those who are going to be ousted, but it will not be impossible and it will not be too difficult to mobilise public opinion in favour of this much-needed conservation effort.

And the last point is that placing the draft bylaws that run into 91 pages in English and Hindi and without a single word in Urdu in a state that has Punjabi and Urdu as its second languages is absolutely inadequate. Many of those who will have to relocate are illiterate or can only read Urdu and hardly anyone in the Basti would even know that there are such bylaws that they need to comment on and they will never know unless the NMA goes to them.

The inadequacy of the notice can be judged from the fact that from the day it was launched on April 26, 2016, to 15.40 pm on March 10, 2019, only 3,107 people had visited the NMA website. My guess about how many of them visited the site since the Basti bylaws were uploaded is as good as yours.

—The writer is a heritage and conservation activist and conducts heritage walks

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