The National Monuments Authority (NMA) has granted the NOC to the Lucknow Metro Rail Corporation (LMRC) for the construction of underground tunnels and metro stations along three centrally protected monuments in Agra- Agra Fort, Delhi Gate and Jama Masjid. The construction can be undertaken at a depth of 10 to 16 m below surface level and height of the entry and exit gates to the stations can come up to 4 m above the ground level. This decision has been published in the Minutes of the 311th meeting of the NMA which was held on July 28, 2021.
This clearance will allow continuation of the construction work for the 6 km long priority stretch of the Corridor I of the Agra Metro, half of which is already underway. The proposed stretch begins from the Taj Mahal East Gate Metro Station and ends at the Jama Masjid Metro Station.
As this author has reported earlier the case had been pending for some time as the NMA had at least twice rejected the proposal of the LMRC in 2020. The proposal had included underground construction near the aforementioned monuments as well as elevated construction in the regulated area of four other monuments. The NMA had not cleared the earlier proposal as the latter request was impermissible and had suggested LMRC to include an underground alignment instead of elevated one. The latest decision of the NMA does not mention any details about the status of the request for elevated construction.
The NOC has been accompanied by certain conditions, one of which includes monitoring of vibrational and structural impacts on the monuments during construction as well as during metro rail operation. The condition explicitly states that concern regarding threat to historic monuments during and after construction has been repeatedly expressed before the NMA. Advocate MC Mehta who has been spearheading the legal campaign for the conservation of environmental and historical heritage of the city has also expressed this concern as reported earlier.
NMA’s Track Record in granting NOCs to metro projects
Since 2010, when the NMA came into existence, the authority has cleared seven projects despite concerns of impact of construction activity and operation of metro projects on the monuments. The first of these cases dates back to 2013 when the NMA cleared underground construction activity in Delhi for the metro line between Central Secretariat and Kashmiri Gate.
In 2016 however the NMA twice rejected the application of Kolkata Metro project for underground construction activity near three centrally protected monuments. The Member Secretary of the NMA cited the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 2010 according to which construction activity is prohibited within 100 m of any monument in any direction, including underground construction even in cases of public projects or public utility.
The matter was heard by the Kolkata High Court. In its order of June 15, 2017 the court highlighted the NOC granted to Delhi Metro in 2013 within prohibited area of Kashmiri Gate and Khooni Darwaza as a matter of precedent. The court also highlighted the greater public interest which the project serves and the crores of rupees which must have already been spent in it.
Two days later the NMA in an emergency meeting reversed its earlier order and granted NOC to the construction of an underground metro tunnel and a metro station near the three centrally protected monuments in Kolkata. The reasons cited included the Kolkata High Court judgment besides the advice of Ministry of Law and past precedents of approvals given by the NMA to the Delhi Metro and the Chennai Metro projects in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
Thereafter similar NOCs have been granted in five more cases, all of them involving underground construction. Two of the NOCs each have been given for Ahmedabad Metro and Pune Metro projects and one for Delhi Metro project.
Underground alignments of metro corridors have become acceptable alternatives to elevated alignments for the NMA despite threats from underground construction and metro operation to historical monuments. The NMA evidently has been prioritising development and “public projects” over the conservation of historical heritage even though the latter is the actual mandate of the authority.