The tussle between the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the principal Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the Puri Heritage Corridor Project has intensified following the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)’s recent submission in the Orissa High Court that the ongoing project work might have caused damage to the 12th century Jagannath temple and that it was being carried out without permission from competent authorities.
While the BJP has periodically targeted the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government over the execution of the Puri project, the stand taken by the central body ASI in the high court has fuelled the row.
In its affidavit submitted in the high court on May 9, the ASI stated that the state government was undertaking the project’s construction work within the prohibited and regulated areas of the monument without valid permission. The court is hearing a PIL against the project, which has raised concerns over its impact on the Puri temple’s structural safety.
The ASI’s affidavit came after it undertook a joint inspection of the project site along with the state government officials on May 1 in pursuance of the court’s order. The joint team comprised of ASI functionaries as well as state government officials like the Puri collector and the Odisha Bridge and Construction Corporation (OBCC) managing director.
In response to the ASI’s stand, Advocate General Ashok Kumar Parija told the division bench of Chief Justice S Muralidhar and Justice RK Pattanaik that a no-objection certificate (NOC) was granted to the project by the Center’s National Monuments Authority (NMA) on September 4, 2021. He also said the state government will file its reply to the ASI’s affidavit.
While posting the matter for next hearing on June 22, the court asked the state government to keep in view the ASI’s observations as and when it undertakes any further project work.
Seizing on the ASI’s stand, the BJP’s Bhubaneswar MP Aparajita Sarangi launched a fresh attack on the Patnaik government, tweeting that “After filing of ASI’s affidavit before the High Court, I am convinced that Lord Jagannath is trying to save himself and his temple from an elected state government which is hell bent upon brazenly defying the law”. She had also raked up the issue in the Lok Sabha in March this year.
Speaking to the Indian Express, BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, who had contested from the Puri constituency unsuccessfully in the 2019 parliamentary polls, called the Patnaik government’s move to push the project an “assault on the Odia heritage”. “The state government carried out construction works without approval from competent authority. The Shree Jagannath temple is a heritage for Odias. If we destroy our archaeological remnants, who would be responsible for it,” he said.
Patra also tweeted: “In Lok Sabha, Puri MP Pinaki Misra said that only 4 toilets are being constructed in the restricted zone of Jagannath temple. Pinaki Misra should apologise for this blatant lie.”
Hitting back, BJD leader Pinaki Misra said, “Work has been underway with the NMA’s NOC. We have never talked about the ASI’s approval. Whatever is happening is within the purview of law. Reception counter would come up in regulated area with permission. And where is it written that DPR (detailed project report) cannot be revised?”
The Puri MP said that “Sambit Patra or I cannot decide how much area should be dug out. Digging activity is carried out as per suggestions of civil engineers”, adding that “if anyone is having any issues with that, they can go to the high court or Supreme Court”.
Puri temple, which is one of the four dhams for Hindus in the country, holds immense spiritual significance for the people of Odisha. “The Puri temple is of utmost importance for the people of the state. If the temple is damaged for any reason, it will hurt all Odias. The ASI is equally responsible for remaining silent for so long,” said Bijoy Mohapatra, a senior BJP leader who was formerly with the BJD.
One of the Patnaik government’s most ambitious projects, the Puri Heritage Corridor Project, with an estimated cost of Rs 3,200 crore, was unveiled in December 2019 with the objective to transform Puri into an international place of heritage. A resolution regarding the project — which includes redeveloping major portions of the holy town and in the vicinity of the temple for visitors and tourists — was unanimously passed by the state Assembly in February 2020.
From the electoral perspective, the Puri parliamentary constituency, a traditional BJD stronghold, is equally crucial for the saffron party. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the state BJP had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to contest from the seat. The party had finally fielded Patra, who lost the election to Misra with a margin of about 11,000 votes.
The Puri heritage project is one of the many temple redevelopment projects launched in Odisha following the 2019 Assembly polls, when the BJP outstripped the Congress to become the main Opposition. Some of the temples that are undergoing or have undergone renovation include Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar, Samleswari temple in Sambalpur, Bariprada temple, Maa Tarini temple in Ghatgaon, Konark Heritage Corridor, Maa Bhadrakali temple in Bhadrak, Akhandalamani temple in Aradi, Tara Tarini temple in Ganjam, Baldevjew temple in Keonjhar, and Sri Gupteswar temple in Koraput.
These redevelopment projects were said to have been rolled out as part of the BJD’s strategy to counter the BJP’s rise in the state, which has also faced obstruction from the BJP-ruled Centre. In April this year, the Center told the Odisha government that its ordinance to bring the 11th-century ASI-protected Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar and its associated temples under a special law was outside the competence of the state Assembly. It told the BJD government that the ordinance was in conflict with the rules laid down under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act, 1958. The special law was meant to facilitate the state government’s development plan for Lingaraj temple and its peripheral area. The 66-acre “Ekamra Kshetra” development plan was launched to preserve the heritage and development of the nine sites and their nearby areas at a cost of around Rs 700 crore. The BJD government would now bring an amendment to the legislation.