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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Officials have 'no time' to act on encroachments

Nikhila Henry & Sudipta Sengupta, TNN | Mar 27, 2012, 04.42AM IST

HYDERABAD: Buried in a corner on the right hand wing of the department of archaeology and museums is the files section which stores detailed paper work on projects the department has taken up in the recent past. But what remains unnoticed and often unattended to here are the hundreds of petitions filed by heritage lovers, concerned citizens and activists requesting the department to take up conservation and restoration of monuments and heritage sites across the state.

In the past one year alone, the department has received over 1,600 petitions claim officials, but those in know of things insist that every year over 3,000 petitions are filed by heritage conservation societies alone, and most of these are not acted upon.

Given the situation, the state archeology department's move to act instantly on a treasure clue last month has come as a surprise to most heritage experts who rue how the office is otherwise known to sit pretty on any complaint or request registered with it. Among these petitions are requests made to the department to look into encroachment of heritage cites, flaws in the upkeep of monuments and even misappropriation of funds by local bodies authorized to conduct repair works.

Most petitions come to the department from cities like Hyderabad, Vizag, Vijayawada and Warangal which have several historical monuments that fall under the purview of the state archaeology department. Interestingly, activists from districts other than Hyderabad say that they bear the brunt of the department's apathy the most. While at least some of the complaints from Hyderabad are entertained by the department, majority of their petitions are gathering dust in the department's store room, they rued. "Even complaints that required the department to act fast including that of encroachment at Thotlakonda Buddhist site and demolition of surrounding structures of Ramappa temple were not looked into immediately. There were hundreds of complaints from Vizag and Warangal about anomalies in restoration works at the two sites but no action has been taken yet," said a city based heritage conservationist.

The department heads do not even give a patient hearing to heritage lovers' anxieties, many rued. A petitioner who has been in touch with the archaeology department since the past six months demanding quick action to save shrines and pillars surrounding the Ramappa temple, Warangal said that not many from the department were ready to meet him.

"I have been trying to save structures outside the compound wall of Ramappa temple as those were originally part of the temple's compound. A part of the original temple landscape which belongs to the Kakatiya rulers is now encroached upon by various private parties," said M Nagaraj, a consultant architect and engineer from Warangal. Some of the heritage conservation bodies like INTACH said that the department does not give importance to suggestions provided to their heritage experts. "Thotlakonda Buddhist site is under threat of remodeling done by Vizag Urban Development Authority (VUDA). They are constructing buildings, laying roads and digging around the Buddhist remains which are located on top of a hill. We have been asking the department to intervene and stop the activity since the past four years but so far no action was taken," said P V Prasad, co-convener, INTACH, Vizag chapter.

Even in Hyderabad which stations the department's headquarters, activists said that their petitions get neglected. Be it the petitions of heritage activists crying foul over the encroachments around Mecca Masjid or the numerous complaints about poor restoration of the historic Qutub Shahi Tombs, the department has always turned a blind eye to such grievances of the public. "There have been multiple groups and individuals who have taken up the issue of the Seven Tombs and all the illegal activities that are known to be rampant on its premises. Yet the department has shown no interest to address these concerns," said an activist raising a doubt over just why the otherwise 'slow' department jumped in to dig up a prime land in the city at a mere mention of treasure by a group of masons.

In fact, public concerns apart, the department is also known for ignoring petitions sent by the heritage conservation committee (an arm of HMDA) or district officials. "As HCC only plays an advisory role in the scheme of things, it is important for them to rope in government officials, including the state archaeology department to take any heritage related decision. However, the government body most often ignores such requests made to them by HCC. Their letters are not responded to and their suggestions about carrying out some work are dumped in the dustbin," said a heritage expert. This is true even in the case of district collectors, say some. Referring to the many instances where letters sent out to the archaeology department about some treasure found in the districts have been ignored, sources allege that the department works according to its own whims and fancies. "It is appalling how much historic wealth we have lost because of this reluctant attitude of the department," said a conservation architect.

Even RTIs filed with the department are never answered. While the rulebook restricts the time limit to just 30 days, the department is known to take much more. It is learnt that in April last year heritage activist Umair Khan had filed an RTI petition with the department seeking information on why and under what circumstances the department renamed the state museum as YSR museum. He is yet to hear from the department. Miffed with the department's apathy towards attending to petitions, several heritage lovers have started approaching the court directly. "If we want something to be done fast we approach the high court and file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). This speeds up the conservation activities," said Prasad from INTACH, Vizag who is planning to file a PIL to save Thotlakonda Buddhist sites.

(This is the concluding part in the series of reports that explored all that the state archaeology department has ignored)

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