Smart City or Heritage City? That seems to be Agra’s dilemma

Agra: In the race for a Smart City tag, heritage structures in Agra are under threat, stakeholders say. The haphazard growth of urban clusters encroaching on the free space around monuments and the alarming rise in pollution levels have compelled rethinking whether becoming a Smart City was the answer to Agras problems.

Green activists and conservationists have now demanded that the Union government approach Unesco to secure the World Heritage City status for Agra. The Supreme Court is already seized of the matter. A month ago, it said in deep anguish: “Restore or demolish the Taj Mahal.”

In the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has taken a tough stand on conservation of heritage monuments, including the 17th century monument of love, the Taj Mahal, on the PIL of eco-lawyer M.C. Mehta who has been constantly monitoring developments in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), the eco-sensitive 10,040 sq km area around the monument.

The apex court ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to present a vision document on the TTZ. Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture was asked to — and drew up — a draft vision document to restore and conserve Agra’s heritage. The Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department and the Agra Divisional Commissioner, who heads the TTZ, have supported the demand for declaring Agra a heritage city.

Local conservation activists and NGOs say the tag will conserve monuments and the essential character of Agra, which could get lost in a Smart City. Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society president Surendra Sharma asked: “If not Agra, with three World Heritage monuments and dozens of smaller historical buildings, then which other Indian city qualifies for this status? Agra is unique not just architecturally but for its culture, for its history, the cuisine and its lifestyle. Mandarins in the Agra Development Authority and a caucus of so-called builders want to destroy the past by snapping the umbilical chords that connect Agra to a glorious past.”

Medieval historians have described Agra as a cosmopolitan city, bigger than London and Paris at the time. “Agra soaks in history. Home to the Taj Mahal, two other Unesco World Heritage sites — the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri — every nook and corner tells a story of its splendid past,” conservationist Rajiv Saxena pointed out.

A heritage city tag will help conserve historical buildings, old havelis, water bodies, forests and even the old city’s oriental market, environmentalist Devashish Bhattacharya added.

In 2007, the Union Tourism Ministry told the Supreme Court that Agra could not be granted heritage city status because it lacked basic infrastructure and sought time to develop this. But till date, the city does not have regular air connectivity, streamlined roads, adequate security arrangements for visitors and other related facilities.

Travel writers like Lucy Peck have suggested starting Heritage Walks through the interiors of the city to acquaint foreign visitors with its live heritage, the life and vocations of the locals. Several international bodies, including Unesco, have supported projects to restore the Taj city’s old glory.

“A city so rich in culture and architecture, where every street has a historical building, needs to be recognised as a heritage city and the Union ministry should draw up plans to remove encroachments around tourist sites,” conservationist Shravan Kumar Singh contended.

The chief reason why tourism has not become “everybody’s business” in Agra and not directly benefited the locals in a substantial manner is the lack of heritage consciousness, he added.

Even today, the city retains the original names and the functions of various places also remain largely the same.

“Yes, in the so-called modern Agra there is evidence of haphazard planning and irrational growth, but then those are not the heritage pieces one would like preserved,” explained N.R. Smith, a meticulous chronicler of Agra’s modern history.

“We have to begin by demarcating the areas as Mughal Agra, British Agra and the Agra Development Authority’s Agra. Only then can one go ahead with conserving the real heritage of the city of the Taj Mahal. And those who think people and their work places need to be demolished to make way for modern malls or parking slots are only hurting the spirit of conservation,” Smith added.

Eminent Mughal historian R. Nath said the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is not doing enough to sincerely conserve monuments according to the manual laid down by John Marshall, who was the ASI chief during 1902-1928 and was responsible for the discovery of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, the two main cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation.