Thursday, the Supreme Court reserved orders on petitions against the excavation and construction work by the Odisha government along the Puri Jagannath temple as part of the Puri Heritage Corridor project. A bench consisting of Judges BR Gavai and Hima Kohli is expected to deliver its orders on Friday.
What is the Puri Heritage Corridor case about?
The Supreme Court case comes at a time when the Orissa High Court is already hearing a plea against the state government building alongside the 800-year-old Puri Jagannath Temple. Residents of Puri had moved the High Court alleging that the structural safety of the temple could be at risk if the land around the temple was dug up. The Puri District Court also hears cases to stop construction.
Last week, a High Court bench including Chief Justice S Muralidhar and RK Pattnaik asked the state government to file an affidavit by June 20 and set the case down for hearing on June 22. The court had also asked the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) to file an affidavit in court and even conduct a joint inspection with the state government.
The ASI then told the court that the state government had no permission required for the project.
The best of Express Premium
Following the ASI affidavit, different claimants (not those before the High Court) applied to the Supreme Court. The SC considers whether such an appeal through a special leave application can be allowed before hearing the argument on the merits.
What is the construction in question?
Conceived in 2016, the ambitious Puri Heritage Corridor Project has become the center of a political brawl between BJP and BJD-led state government. This is the redevelopment of Puri into a heritage site at a cost of Rs 3,200 crore. Construction has been taken over by the Odisha Bridge and Construction Corporation (OBCC) under the state works department, while Tata Projects is leading it on the ground.
The project includes 22 projects for the redevelopment of large parts of the temple city. The first phase of the works, estimated to cost Rs 800 crore, commenced in February 2020. Following this, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) approved the architectural design plan for the project.
The project includes redevelopment of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration Building (SJTA); a Srimandir visitor center (capacity 600); Jagannath Cultural Center including Raghunandan Library; integrated command and control centre; Badadanda Heritage Streetscape; improvement of amenities in Srimandir; Sri Setu; Jagannath Ballav Pilgrimage Center; multi-level car park; municipal market development; Development of Swargadwar; Pramod Udyan; Gurukulam; Mahodadhi market; seaside development; Puri lake; Musa River Recovery Plan; Atharnala; and housing for the sevayats.
What is the role of the UPS in this?
The 12th century temple is a protected central monument, with the ASI as its guardian. In accordance with the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, the National Monuments Authority (NMA) grants approval for construction and requires that a Heritage Impact Assessment be carried out prior to development works around any monument of archaeological significance with a built-up area in excess of 5,000 square metres. The Jagannath temple covers 43,301.36 square meters.
The NMA under the Union Ministry of Culture was established for the protection and preservation of monuments and sites through the management of the prohibited and restricted area around centrally protected monuments.
And what did he say about the project?
On September 4, 2021, the NMA had issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the state government for the construction of a locker room, shelter lodge, three toilets, an electrical room and ‘a sidewalk in the prohibited zone of 75 meters. The NMA’s approval was based on the understanding that public amenities do not fall under the construction definition and that the project would be carried out under the supervision of ASI.
However, after a joint inspection, ASI Chief Executive V Vidyavathi raised his concerns about the project in the High Court. The affidavit filed on May 9 indicated that it was possible that the archaeological remains of the heritage site could be destroyed due to the excavation of the corridor.
On February 21, ASI also wrote to the state government to review the proposed development around the Puri Srimandir. “A point of discussion was the proposed reception center which is at a distance of 75 meters from the temple (part of it falls under the forbidden zone). It is proposed that the building be used to welcome worshipers before they go go to the main compound. Since this would be very essential, it was decided that the state government would consider options to slightly move the building beyond 100 meters,” ASI wrote. It added that moving the building beyond 100 meters would be good in the interests of temple security.
How did the state react?
Attorney General Ashok Kumar Parija relied on the NOC granted by the NMA, arguing that the project did not deviate from the parameters on which the approval was granted. He also sought an opportunity to file a detailed response to the ASI affidavit, which the court granted.
The state government also cited a 2019 verdict by Judge Arun Mishra which pointed to the lack of facilities and poor management of the Puri temple premises. In one of several directorates, the SC had also ordered that “ASI immediately approve the construction plan for hangars/permanent structures which is absolutely necessary”.
Newsletter | Click to get the best explainers of the day delivered to your inbox
Why is the project being challenged in the Supreme Court?
The petitioners argued that the project had “no valid permission” while the Odisha government insisted it did. Appearing for the claimants, lead solicitor Mahalakshmi Pavani argued that the construction was taking place in breach of Section 20A of the Ancient Monuments Act which sets a minimum of 100 meters in which construction around a protected monument is prohibited, except in exceptional circumstances with permission. from the central government or from the Director General of the ASI.
For the state, Advocate General Ashok Kumar Parija argued that the activities currently being carried out, which consist of constructing public facilities such as toilets, cannot be qualified as construction within the meaning of the law. He referred to the NMA NOC and added that “we don’t do anything beyond that.”
(With contributions from Ananthakrishnan G)