Naveen Patnaik’s government has announced a rehabilitation and resettlement scheme days after running bulldozers over a 900 year old mutt right opposite the Puri temple.
The plan to clear 75 metres around the 12th century Jagannath temple, one of the holiest places for practising Hindus, is being executed with no public consultation and at breakneck speed, say its critics. It is part of a larger Rs 500 crore redevelopment of the temple town into a world heritage city, somewhat on the lines of Narendra Modi’s Kashi-Viswanath corridor in Varanasi.
The administration hopes to complete the new-look Puri before the next Ratha Yatra and will pay an additional ten percent of cash benefits to those handing over their properties in a month of the scheme’s notification.
Sunday’s R&R scheme, offering compensation beyond what the land acquisition act of 2013 provides for, covered rent expenses, relocation of shops to new commercial complexes, homes or plots for residents to be displaced. Much of the area concerned is temple land and the offer is being seen as a move to placate the affected – who failed to get relief from the Supreme Court.
“It has long been awaited that some Chief Minster would have the vision and courage of conviction to overcome the tremendous obstacles in the form of status quo proponents and do something spectacular for Puri. This will immeasurably benefit Puri’s vast majority of people and tourists and leave a lasting and memorable legacy of Naveen Babu,” said Puri MP Pinaki Misra.
Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal lost the Puri assembly seat to the Bhartiya Janata Party. it retained the Lok Sabha seat by a slender margin. The temple, its physical upkeep and its priests have all been cause of considerable grief to the government in the last few years. Sympathy for sevaks or priests in charge of several rituals has also been eroded in the process.
Those executing Patnaik’s dream believe there was no other way of getting this done in Puri. Announcing the Rs 500 crore project on August 23, coinciding with Janmashtami, the CM said, “Global terrorism is a big challenge. Terror groups are targeting religious institutions. So, it is imperative to implement various security related suggestions in the temple.”
The government says its acting on recommendations of a committee headed by retired judge of Orissa High Court, Justice Bimal Prasad Das. A host of measures for security, crowd management and widening of roads to allow six fire tenders and ten ambulances has been made in the report, submitted on 20 April 2017. The report is yet to be tabled before the assembly. Only aspects dealing with the temple’s security has been approved by the cabinet is public,” said a senior bureaucrat.
The swift demolitions prompted the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth in Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, to accuse the government of “conspiring” to demolish the mutts.
Advocate General, Ashok Parija who defended the demolitions in the Supreme Court told ET, “The Das Commission held extensive discussions with stakeholders and followed statutory provisions. Only recommendation relating to security are being implemented at present.” Parija has invited the amicus curiae and solicitor general to visit Puri for a first-hand appreciation of the redevelopment being undertaken.
Before it paused for Ganesh Chaturthi on Sunday, the Puri administration had demolished the 14th century Languli Mutt and much of the Emar Math, almost as old as the current temple. With it, it brought down the nearly hundred year old Raghunandan Library established in 1921. The government has promised Rs 5 crore to rebuild the library somewhere else.
The Emar mutt, one of the richest in town, was located bang opposite the temple’s doors and has long been declared as an unsafe structure. Like other mutts of Puri, it has long history of contributions to The temple town’s socio-cultural life. It is believed to have exchanged its stock of grains for silver during the great Odisha famine of 1866. Those silver bricks, 522 in all were discovered in 2011 when a construction worker employed by the mutt was caught trying to sell one such 30-40 kg brick, causing the police to also question the Mahant’s role. The demolition has uncovered new underground spaces from where bats have been flying out.
Puri collector Balwant Singh told ET, the mutt was in absolutely unsafe condition, “It could have come crashing down at any moment and cost people their lives. We are not demolishing either the gadis or the temples within these mutts,” he said.
“When the bricks were found, the very same Patnaik government was in power, and the very same mahant was heading the mutt. Wasn’t the state government concerned about affairs then. We are not against development, but surely there should have been some discussion. Palli sabhas are held even for village ponds to be built,” said Puri’s BJP MLA, Jayant Kumar Sarangi.
In queue for a similar fate is the Bada Akhada mutt, whose upper floor rooms was rented out to the state police. “Even the tulsi at the Jagannath temple is auctioned. The fact is mutts provide a lot of facilities to the public and visiting sants and sadhus,” said Mahant Hari Narayan Das who argues heritage is as much about the intangibles. “I believe the project is a two year plan. The government coud have used the first year to relocate at least 30-50 per cent of the people, before beginning the demolition,” he added. For mutts, the R&R scheme says, the collector will hold consultation with stakeholders to decide on a rehabilitation, “with a focus on heritage architecture, complementary filiation between Jagananth Temple and the concerned mutt, and adequate parking.”
A ‘daitapati’ whose clothes shop stands to be demolished, grumbled about “the midnight notices that gave them a few hours’ time, the khaki and camouflage cops moving them at gunpoint.” However, he didn’t want to go on record since, he said, he had already got himself into trouble with the temple administration for shooting pictures of the Lord on his cell phone during the last Rath Yatra.