Prasanna Mishra

For sometime, Jagannath Dham of Puri has been witnessing state activism of unusual nature with an undefined objective. Centuries-old mutts were pulled down apart from destroying age-old shelters for pilgrims visiting the ancient Tirtha from different parts of the country. Some of the mutts used to contribute resources for performance of different rituals of the temple. Some rendered services to the temple; some helped the destitute; some patronised Vedic education. Mutts were/are an integral part of the temple functioning. Each of the mutts was a candidate for reforms; none was eligible for the gallows. Yet the irrational state activism sent them to the gallows. 

Shortsighted arrangements were introduced for devotees to gain entry to the temple, hardly appreciating that Srimandir was very different from temples elsewhere and it was sheer bureaucratic myopia that thrust a wholly unnecessary devotee-entry arrangement. While common devotees faced scorching heat and long waits to gain entry, people with connections including officials had privileged entry. Widely-publicized reforms have not improved the temple experience of devotees.

Ancient buildings owned by private individuals under valid rights for generations close to the temple were acquired to create a sanitised zone for the safety of the Temple. Hundreds of owners surrendered their ancestral properties. While the public was made to believe that a sanitized zone of about a 100 metres around the temple would be developed as vacant space, the government unfolded its secret agenda of a Parikrama Project involving public expenditure of over several thousand crores.

The area vacated through land acquisition and by pulling down of ancient mutts came under the prohibited area under The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010. As per the Central Act, no permission, including carrying out any public work or project essential to the public or other constructions, could be granted in any prohibited area on or after the date on which the AMASR (Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2010 received the assent of the President.

Yet the Odisha Government launched a blatant act of violation of the Act by commencing machine digging in the prohibited area and immediately undertaking reinforced concrete work and laying huge foundations for a comprehensive building programme. Apparently a “No Objection Certificate” of ASI DG was relied upon while the Act specifically prohibited any construction. The No Objection Certificate is violative of law. 

A PIL has been filed with the Orissa High Court regarding construction/ development activities underway within the prohibited Area of Puri Jagannath Temple. The High Court directed that the ASI will, after examining the petition, file an affidavit in the court. 'It will be open to ASI to undertake a joint inspection of the construction activities going on at present in Shree Jagannath Temple complex after advance intimation to the temple authorities'.

Joint inspection was accordingly made. It was found that construction work of the Srimandir Parikrama Project was in progress, which falls, in parts, within both the Prohibited and Regulated areas of the centrally protected monument. During the inspection, the team visited the work site of various structures like toilets, shelter pavilion, cloak room, electrical room, reception centre and Shri Jagannath temple administration building, etc. 

Managing director of executing agency, OBCC, during discussion informed that as on date there was no permission or approval of NMA/ Competent Authority available for structural activities and its design of Srimandir Parikrama Project. The Managing Director further informed that, there were deviations in plan and elevation as well in the project design, which they had already submitted to NMA on July 15, 2021 before a presentation was made before the NMA on August 17, 2021. In the revised proposal, height of various structural units had been increased and more units have been added. At several locations, it was evident that removal of about 15 to 20 ft stratified deposits had taken place, which has caused irreparable damage to the heritage site. During the discussion, OBCC officials were clueless about the method of soil removal and cultural findings from the digging.

It was informed during the discussion that no Heritage impact assessment studies have been conducted before commencement of the project. No Ground Penetrating Radar Survey (GPRS) have been conducted to ascertain the archaeological and historical importance lying buried in the subsoil of 75m radius (Construction Zone) of Centrally Protected Monuments.

The conclusions of the ASI were:

(i) the ongoing construction work of the Srimandir Parikrama Project has no valid permission / NOC issued by the Competent Authority.

(ii) The drawings and structural designs included in the revised DPR are different from the one presented to NMA. Frequent changes have been noticed.

(iii) There is every possibility that the agency (OBCC) during the excavation/soil removal might have destroyed the archaeological remains of the heritage site.

The report was placed before the High Court which heard the parties and fixed another date for further hearing. The court has not stayed the ongoing work. The order has evoked reactions from different quarters. Media reports indicate that the government would go ahead with the work. 

The basic issue of flouting of the central law has still not been addressed with the seriousness it deserves. There has not been right appreciation of the serious issues raised by the ASI in its conclusions regarding the possible destruction of archeological remains in the heritage site and that there has been no permission for the heritage corridor project. The development has hurt sentiments of millions of devotees of Mahaprabhu Jagannath while serious concerns prevail over the government's obsession which some feel is iconoclastic.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at lonewalker.1942@gmail.com)

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