No Permission Granted For Puri Heritage Corridor Project, ASI Tells HC; Odisha AG Says Factual Error

Cuttack: Amid the row over the Puri Heritage Corridor project, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in its affidavit filed in Orissa High Court here, on Monday said no valid permission or no-objection certificate (NOC) has been given to the ongoing construction work around Jagannath Temple in Puri.

The affidavit filed by ASI’s regional director Dilip Kumar further said that the drawings and structural designs included in the revised detailed project report (DPR) are different from the one presented to National Monuments Authority (NMA). Frequent changes have been noticed, it added.

These deviations were found during the joint inspection followed by onsite discussions between officials of Odisha Bridge Construction Corporation (OBCC) and Shree Jagannatha Temple Administration (SJTA). “There is every possibility that the agency OBCC during the excavation or soil removal might have destroyed the archaeological remains of the heritage site,” the affidavit said.

Notably, the HC had directed ASI to undertake a joint visit along with officials of the state government to the site and file its affidavit at least two days before May 9. A team comprising Khamari, superintendent Arun Kumar Mallick, assistant superintendent C R Dash along with officials of the project-executing agencies and Puri district collector Samarth Verma had jointly inspected the construction sites and examined the depth, width and other parameters of the pits dug by the administration.

It was earlier alleged that the state government neither has the permission of NMA nor approval from ASI to plan and execute the project, which could potentially pose a threat to the centuries-old temple.

Anup Kumar Mohapatra, the counsel appearing for the petitioner, said the High Court has now directed ASI to file a detailed report on the project, including an assessment of the impact on the 12th-century shrine due to the construction. The ASI will also come up with more clarity on it.

The government counsel, however, argued that there are errors of record in the affidavit and the government had submitted the NOC from NMA to the court.

Advocate General (AG) Ashok Parija further said no specific permission is required from the ASI or NMA for toilets and amenities, which do not fall under the definition of construction and can be carried out in the prohibited area.

He said that any large-scale excavation around the temple can be done with the involvement of ASI, which had also taken up the matter with the state government for adherence with the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (or AMASR Act), 1958, so that the project work can be executed in consonance with the sanctity and necessity of the monument. “All work can be regulated with government and ASI taken together,” he said.

The court was informed that the reception centre has been moved out of the 100-metre prohibited area.

Reading out a memo, he mentioned the Supreme Court order and read out its observations: “We direct ASI also to cooperate and permit activities of improvement which are not prima facie objectionable and necessary for public hygiene, sanitation, public health, upgradation of facilities and at the same time, it has to ensure that the norm of the main structure is maintained as the ancient.”

He also said that these toilets and cloakrooms had to be completed in four months.

Referring to a counter, Parija said that the NMA had no objection under the assurance of strict compliance with the AMSAR Act. He said that the NOC was granted by the NMA on September 4, 2021 and submitted that he would like to file a specific reply to the joint inspection report since it proceeds on the basis that no such permission has been obtained from the NMA.

The ASI counsel, however, said that NMA does not have the authority to grant permission with regard to construction work and the work has to be executed by the archaeology body. However, the court said that the affidavit mentioned that work in the regulated area can be carried out with permission from NMA.

The AG further said that ASI Director-General (DG) had also mentioned after her visit that since these amenities are required by the devotees,  it agreed that these may be allowed. The ASI would work in coordination with the state government on the design so that there is no visual impact on the main temple, the DG said.

On February 21, ASI Director-General V Vidyavathi visited the temple and inspected the project being executed around it. In her visit note, she said, “The proposed amenities fall within the prohibited area of the temple. The government was also requested to keep the entire design simple in tandem with the spiritual nature of the entire temple complex.”

The court also observed that what is being argued by the ASI is contrary to what has been mentioned in the affidavit and also questioned the use of vague language regarding the impact of the construction work on the temple structure.

The state government has been asked to submit its reply to the ASI affidavit by June 20, and the next hearing on the matter has been posted for June 22.

While Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik along with Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb laid the foundation for the Rs 800-crore project in November last year, the area around the perimeter of the temple was dug deep in January to build several facilities, including toilets and cloakrooms.

A 600-capacity reception centre, a cultural centre, an integrated command and control centre, a pilgrim centre and a multi-level car parking lot are part of the project, which aims to make Puri an international place of heritage.

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