Look up from the rubbish-strewn, potholed main street and what makes Tughluqabad different from the other Communities is very clear: a 700-year-old, 25-metre-high, 10-metre-thick, four-mile-long wall.
With its snuffling boars, motorbikes, samosa stand and Deepak General Stores, the village resembles thousands of similar communities across India. But look up from the rubbish-strewn, potholed main street and what makes Tughluqabad different from the others is very clear: a 700-year-old, 25-metre-high, 10-metre-thick, four-mile-long wall.
A handful of tourists may drive down through the snarling traffic to reach the village, sited within a complex of forts, tombs and defences built in the 14th century, but otherwise the rich heritage brings little benefit. Indeed it could bring about the village’s destruction. A supreme court judgment last year now means the 60,000 inhabitants are likely to be evicted and their homes demolished as illegal “encroachments” on an archaeological site.
Though a last-ditch legal fight is under way, people such as Shakunthala, a 60-year-old grandmother who was born in Tughluqabad, are worried. “I’ve lived here all my life. We are poor people. We have nothing. Where will we go? What will we do?” she said.
Resistance in the village is led by Ramvir Singh Bidhuri, a local politician. Claiming descent from the soldiers and craftsmen who founded the village after building the walls and forts, Bidhuri invoked the “valiant history” of the community, which he said fought British colonial overlords during the 1857 Indian rebellion.
“The records show that the people of Tughluqabad fought bravely in the first independence war. Now they want to throw us out of the homes we have inhabited for so long,” he said.
Such conflicts are increasingly common in India. With legislation recently passed, a growing public awareness of the value of India’s architectural heritage and a new political will to boost the lucrative tourist trade, officials from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government body responsible for maintaining 3,660 of the country’s historical sites, have been charged with clearing them of illegal settlements.
The Times of India newspaper recently spoke of a “man v monuments conflict” on a national scale.
“Our job is to conserve and protect the monuments and encroachment is a problem,” said Dr Gautam Sengupta, the ASI director general. “We try to do things amicably but there is little we can do without support from law enforcement agencies.” Sometimes the ASI fulfils its mandate without conflict. Many temples are run in tandem with local trusts or administrative bodies. But hundreds of sites have suffered from the pressure generated across India by land scarcity and a rapidly increasing population and are now home to large numbers of people or used as shops, storehouses or even schools. ASI officials speak of their legal duty to ensure a clear belt of land of up to 300 metres around every site.
PBS Sengar, the ASI’s director of monuments, said if “encroachments” were not cleared, “ultimately the sanctity of the monument is lost, repairs are not possible, the original historical setting is spoiled and a lot of damage is there”.
So in the famous desert fortified town of Jaisalmer, a regular stop on the tourist trail of Rajasthan, local families are now facing legal action to force them to dismantle all or part of their homes. At the other end of Rajasthan, in Deeg, the ASI is trying to clear hundreds of people from homes and shops built around the 18th-century fort.
Even globally recognised sites are not immune. A group of temples at the Khajuraho complex, famous for their erotic sculptures, has disappeared behind hotels, shops and residential houses. Last month a court ordered authorities to clear unauthorised meditation centres, guesthouses and shops from Hampi, the 2,000-year-old temple complex in the southern state of Karnataka, which is one of 28 Unesco world heritage sites in the country.
Though the Taj Mahal in Agra has been carefully protected in recent years, many other sites in the city have disappeared under makeshift homes, bazaars and even rubbish heaps. These too will have to go, the ASI says.
Some, however, are pioneering a different approach. In Nizamuddin Basti, a poor Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi, specialists from the Agha Khan Development Network, an international private philanthropic NGO, have developed a “holistic” strategy that combines development and conservation.
Ratish Nanda, who oversees the restoration of the vast 16th-century tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun, as well as dozens of other medieval shrines, said the goodwill of local people was essential. “Local people need to benefit from conservation. The community need to see buildings as assets, not burdens,” he said. In Nizamuddin, where 40,000 people exist in narrow lanes and tenements, school reading programmes, clinics and training schemes have been set up alongside the conservation projects. One aim, Nanda said, was to create “an example of what can be done” to inspire authorities in India to change their approach.
But though ASI officials say they respect the Nizamuddin project, it is unlikely such strategies will be seen elsewhere soon. Government in India is infamous for its lack of transparency or engagement with local communities.
In Tughluqabad, few have had any contact with officials. “The worst thing is you never know what is happening,” said Ram Bhatti, 73. “Is it going to be the whole village? Or just some of us? And where would they send us? We are always the last to know.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010