Demolition may not ensure safety and security

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In a major decision to ensure the safety and security of 12th century Sri Jagannath temple, the Odisha State Cabinet on August 16, decided to demolish all constructions around 75 metres radius of the temple. It is said that the decision was taken based on the reports of the Justice BP Das Committee. According to a preliminary survey, about 450 commercial shops, 20 numbers of mutts and small temples and 150 houses would be demolished if the government executes 75-metre norm. This decision has spread panic among the residents likely to be affected.

Aggrieved at the decision of the cabinet, the affected residents of Puri have demanded the government to reconsider it as hundreds of families would be displaced while many would lose livelihood.

In 2015, the District administration had demolished 89 shops situated close to the Meghnad Pacheri for security and smooth flow of devotee traffic and Rs.25 crore was paid as compensation. If the 75-metre norm was carried out hundreds would become homeless while many others would likely to lose their livelihood. Besides, heritage institutions like Emar Mutt, Bada Akhada Mutt and Languli Mutt, closely associated with Sri Jagannath Temple and its rituals, shall be razed. It is alleged that without undertaking any survey, preparing any master plan for rehabilitation of the homeless people, the scheduled widening of Parikrama has put to action from August 19. Huge police forces have been deployed to implement the government decision.

10-12 days after the demolition drive inside a 75-meter radius around the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri began, no one knows what the government proposes to do with the land thus being cleared. It is kept as a secret that the vacated area to remain a ‘No Man’s Land’ with the four gates left for devotees to enter the temple or earmarked for VVIP car parking. Since the government has cited safety and security of the temple as the reason for the demolition, one may guess that jawans from paramilitary forces and or state armed forces shall be deployed. The forces shall erect barricades, heap sand bags as per the usual protocol, alike they secure MG Marg near Odisha Legislative Assembly.

India is the world’s largest democracy, where people have right to know. We have laws on acquisition of land and a vibrant R&R policy. If the government was interested to demolish all constructions around 75 metres radius of the temple, they could have followed the law of the land, consulted the stake holders and gone ahead with the acquisition process. In a democracy, objections may come too for any good work. But it is the government to make the affected people convinced and bring them to the mainstream. But with the state government holding the blueprint tight to its chest, the field has been left wide open for wild speculation of the weirdest kind with a section even suspecting that the government has cut a deal with some party to exploit this valuable land for commercial purposes. May be a rumour, but the sequence of events since the government stunned everyone with the sudden and unexpected announcement about the demolition drive as left plenty of room for such misgivings about the ‘real’ intention behind it. Sample this. Chief Minister announced the comprehensive relief and rehabilitation package for the displaced 13 days after the demolition began. The district collector even never bothered to break the impasse till the mahants gathered to prevent razing of the centuries old Bada Akahada mutt. Common sense suggests that these things – the announcement of the rehab package and talks with those to be affected – should have preceded the launch of the demolition drive. All must know – exactly what was the thinking behind this classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

There are no answers forthcoming from the government on the reasons of razing the structures within 75 meters. One cannot believe that the cabinet or the government machinery engaged in demolition assignment are unaware of the fact. Officially, the government has attributed the demolition to the recommendation of the Justice BP Das Commission. Since the Commission did not recommend clearing the area in the 75-meter periphery of the Meghanada Pacheri, it is obvious that the bureaucracy has taken the decision, keeping the cabinet in dark. After the resentment and standoff at the Bada Akhada mutt, the district administration said the administration is ‘committed’ to the preservation and redevelopment of the Mutt temples and heritage buildings and will soon prepare a ‘road map’ for it in consultation with the mahants and other stakeholders. It is therefore clear that the administration undertook the demolition drive without a ‘road map’.

Emar Mutt, one of the oldest mutts in Puri belonging to the Ramanuj sect, and the famous Raghunandan Library on its first floor were demolished. The heritage library having some rare palm leaf manuscripts and books on various subjects in Sanskrit, Odia and Bengali languages, was established in 1921 by the then ‘mahant’ of the Emar Mutt. The district administration had not cared to shift these rare study materials to any existing libraries of the temple town. It is unfortunate that all the books, manuscripts and furniture of the library have been shifted to a Government building on the collectorate campus.

The mutt, located in front of Singhadwara of Jagannath temple, was established over five acres of land by Ramanujacharya. His disciple Srinivascharya had named it as Emar Mutt. The mutt was declared unsafe in 2006 and six years later, the unsafe portions of the Mutt were demolished. This year the heritage Mutt has been razed taking the plea of ‘unsafe’ and security of Sri Mandir. Shankaracharya of Puri Swami Nischalananda Saraswati has rightly said that the Odisha government took a unilateral decision to demolish structures within 75-metre radius of Shree Jagannath Temple and he was not consulted on this important matter. He has termed the ongoing demolition as ‘conspiracy’.

It may neither be a conspiracy nor a deal by the government with some party to exploit this valuable land for commercial purposes, but it remain a fact that rule of law has been violated in a state where Law takes its own course. We have information that the local residents of Puri are happy that the government has shown interest in developing this pilgrim-heritage city in to tourism Dhaam. The residents would have voluntarily welcomed the acquisition process, had the district administration taken them to confidence and prepared an acceptable R&R blue print well ahead of undertaking demolition. Only the shopkeepers and the Mutts have genuine reasons for objection; which could have settled amicably, taking the advice of Shankaracharya and Hindu scholars and researchers.

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