Sunday, 30 December 2012

Some impression about Agra and urban decay in India

Shri Rajeev Gupta, one of the Face Book friends, is socially alive person and thinks a lot about improving the status of Agra –as a world-class heritage city, about its hygiene and public life, about which I have already briefly indicated in one of my recent posts. These posts, accompanied by lots of photographs, were created and posted soon after the conclusion of my 5 day sojourn to Agra, which in itself proved revealing to me. Rajeev called on phone to tell about the views of Devashis Bhattacharya, a Jaipur based businessperson, about tourism in Rajasthan and Agra. What he said may be third person account and not wholly a reproduction of what transpired between the two but the gist is that in the context of tourism –management, service provisions, representation of multi-media and inter-personal communication, Rajasthan is far superior and ahead of UP. There can be various manageable and non-manageable issues about the status of tourist attractions and facilities in addition to the management of the tourist sites and monuments in the two large states of the Indian Union but, nonetheless, my own experience supports the opinion of Mr. Bhattacharya. I have also widely covered several districts of Rajasthan and fairly exposed myself about its rural environs. To myself it appears that in matters of hygiene and order in public spaces Rajasthan offers a far comfortable environment than many cities of UP. In Rajasthan both the rural as well as urban spaces are neat and clean whereas in UP it is filth in most densely populated urban spaces, particularly the cities that have monuments and sites of great heritage value such as Agra, Allahabad and Benaras. Agra Development Agency might have put in huge financial as well as human resources to improve the urban environment through Jawahar Lal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNnURM) but could not achieve much. Whereas Agra has borne too much pressure from both native and foreign tourists, the challenge was equal for Rajasthan. In terms of ancient Hindu science of Vastu that helped founding fathers to establish new cities, Agra was an ideal place as the source of water flows on its northeastern fringes. But this water source called Jamuna, is full of filth nowadays and affords a despicable sight rather than arousing honorable feelings. We can admire the life in the city as pure form of Indian history and tradition but, perhaps, a comparison with a few admired cities of Rajasthan such as Jaisalmer and Udaipur is not fair. What is true about the environment of life and visual character in old sectors of Agra is also true about Jodhpur, the Pink City (Jaipur), Bikaner, Bharatpur (Lohagarh) and a few residential mohallas of Udaipur too, particularly near Baghor ki Haveli. I can say this because as per my habit I traversed on foot the length and breadth of old sectors of the above town and documented it too. And it is happening with the towns of Rajasthan despite the fact that its govt has long back created a 20-year Vision Document for the development of tourism. UP has none.

Now if Mr Bhattacharya and me too are taken seriously, will the governments in UP and Rajasthan listen?

To a non-resident of Agra or a person from other States of the Indian federation the first indicator of an Indian town’s status in modern times is, obviously, the level of public health, cleanliness and hygiene, order in movement and management of traffic and, of course, a disciplined civil life. Therefore, the outer visual inputs play a critical role in providing a quick assessment of the outlook.

When I looked at these indicators for old sectors of Agra, it dawned on me that my city Rohtak is far more orderly, spacious and clean in spite of the fact the growth of Agra has been phenomenon in the past one and a half decades. Whereas massive efforts of rebuilding the infrastructure for Rohtak by the present Hooda Government have certainly provided the city a clean and elegant look. The second phase of the massive funding for building infrastructure in Rohtak took place after a gap of nearly 170 years. Rohtak was afforded the status of a separate district in 1943 and for the next 40 years or so various old type structures were raised to accommodate public offices. Thereafter many were run from rented buildings. In these years the old rickety buildings became so fragile and dilapidated as cried either for massive repair or demolition. The Hooda government preferred the latter option.

Pollution created by vehicles depends on the number of vehicles on roads, smoother movement and the level of technology. In all the major or medium towns of India air pollution has become a menace and great nuisance these days but in a democratic and open market society such as we are terms and lifestyle cannot be dictated for opting public preferences. In the context of Mr. Bhattacharya’s observation about Rajasthan in comparison to Agre, let it be said that even the smaller kasbas in Rajasthan are now witness to similar blitz as big cities such as Kanpur and Delhi. From 1997 to this date I have extensivly documented 22 ‘Thikanaas’ of the Shekhawati region in northern Rajasthan comprised of three districts viz Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar. One and a half decades ago when I had started visiting the smaller towns of these districts such as Fatehpur, Ratangarh, Sujangarh, Nawalgarh, Khandela, Udaipurwati, Mandawa, Ramgarh, Bissau, Khetri and Mahansar etc, the life in them appeared slow and sleepy, much like any village in India. These places are now bustling with activity. Although big tourism is still far away for these small towns but, of course, the locals have bought vehicles and most towns that are situated on or near the highways have seen modern day urban sprawl, neglecting the interior sectors that once used to be the pride of these people in the form of the best that traditional Indian art and architecture had to offer. As concrete replaced the sandy alleys for internal navigation water began to flow along the walls of havelis in garbage-filled channels. The seepage started damaging the foundation of magnificent mansions of yore. All sort of vehicles that plied the whole day spilled black smoke from exhausts leaving an indelible impression on the fascia of the painted havelis marring beauty and magnificence. The fescoes on many a haveli have borne the brunt of the vehicular traffic in addition to weathering and aging. Hundreds of tiny shops have come up covering even the podiums and facade of havelis located on the outer fringes of all the above-indicated small towns. Almost all shopkeepers now feel comfortable in displaying their merchandize and fast food packets in a dangling mode unaware of the fact that it becomes an intolerable visual encroachment. As per habit most Indians throw rappers and tetra packs hither and thither as soon as the foodstuff has been consumed. It has a huge menacing potential because it takes several decades’ time before the natural forces disintegrate the plastic, plastic coating and the aluminum coating to make it possible to be absorbed into the soil. However, a casual disposal certainly chokes our drains and spoils the passages and roads. The sweepers’ community has ever been an untrained lousy lot in India and, therefore, the litter is never properly disposed of.

On the other hand Agra is also not free from the suffocating articles of the modern era and several heaps of stinking garbage along the drains that must have been recently excavated from the half-open nullahs (sewage water drains) could be seen lying in the vicinity of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid.

The architectural heritage of the Mughal era at Agra, Sikandara and Fatehpur Sikri are looked after very well by the Archaeological Survey of India but the extreme pressure from the tourism activity in the last two decades has left its ugly mark as millions of footfalls in these great edifices have bruised and rubbed the upper surface of stone slabs of the floors. Corners and cornices have turned shabby because visiting crowds feel pleasure touching the wall or sadistically slipping the hand over them or caressing an embellishment of artwork. I asked many a person in old Agra if they have ever thoroughly seen all the monuments and appreciated them as sentinels of history. They looked almost blank as if I had put a bizarre query. One of them said that all the locals have been watching it since childhood but most of them never felt the urge to see the interiors.  Almost all the open spaces and roadsides outside the monuments at Agra have been encroached or occupied by vendors and taxis in waiting. Not long ago, in 1999, I had entered the Taj from the eastern gate and was delighted to see that was not a single shops on the road up to the JALMA Hospital, now called National JALMA Institute for Leprosy and other Mycobacterial Diseases, a renowned laboratory of Indian Council of Medical Research. The entire area on this as well as the Fatehabad road was as open as a playground. The riverfront in the rear of the Taj, which could be approached through an approach road, is open but a few ugly service structures of service quarters a temple have come up. In just over a decade the open spaces have vanished giving way to hotels of all categories, curio shops, small teashops run from shanties or Rehris, housing colonies and buildings of other sorts. It has been an amazing revelation to see the urban growth of India since 1995, which has posed several unique and unmanageable problems for us, particularly new challenge if the sprawl affects the immediate environs of a historical and heritage value monument and disturbs its skyline such as the heritage city of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. However, the skyline of the Mughal structures of yore at Agra could not been affected because of their massive size but the environment around them has certainly deteriorated. Traffic jams in major arterial roads in Agra has become a daily feature, particularly at the Sai ka Takia, MG Road, Bhagwan Talkies, Khandari, Chhipi Tola, Purani Mandi Mod, Belangunz, Jama Masjid, Red Fort Station and Bizli Ghar. Respite from jams is a far away objective for ADA.

Since the times the British came over to Agra, sometime in the late eighteenth century, and developed the Mall road area into a planned agglomeration of the old city, many utility buildings for official, religious and residential purpose were erected. The British era buildings have both English as well as Indian architectural features; a few of them made to appear pleasing to the eye with embellishments done in stucco or dressed brick. For example the buildings of the Cecil House, the GPO, bungalows and the Churches are worth appreciating. The openness of the sectors developed and settled during the British era need to be carefully preserved for posterity as it belongs to the local history of Agra. I could see many old bungalows turned into Hotels such as Agra Hotel and many demolished to give way to multistory business complexes. There should be a ban on such activities as mars the discipline of the space or alters the use.

In the above context, mention must be made of Fatehpur Sikri and Sikandara, which I will do in the next installment.

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