Who is responsible for Katas Raj fiasco?

The structure of local governments is not designed for maintenance of such sites and areas

Hasaan Khawar December 20, 2017
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

In recent weeks, the Katas Raj temple drew significant media attention. The issue started with drying up of a historic pond on the site, due to fall in subsoil water level, attributed to nearby cement factories. It then turned out that many statues of Hindu deities in the temples have also been missing. The Supreme Court took suo-motu notice and directed the Punjab government and a nearby cement factory to fill the pond immediately.

The Punjab chief minister has already launched an inquiry into the matter and imposed a ban on installation of new cement factories or expansion of the existing ones. While the inquiry may put the blame on a few officials, this mess points towards a much deeper problem. The temple is one of the 26 sites listed on the tentative list for Unesco World Heritage Sites, with 10 of them situated in Punjab. So who manages these sites? Are there any laws for their upkeep and do we have the requisite capacity to maintain and preserve them?

Directorate-general of archaeology is responsible for conserving and preserving archaeological sites in Punjab. Some of the historic religious sites however are also managed by the Auqaf department. A number of laws exist in Punjab: Antiquities Act of 1975 (updated 2012), the Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance 1985 and the Punjab Heritage Foundation Act of 2005. The archaeology department maintains a list of protected areas, including Hindu religious sites, but Katas Raj temples never made it to the list.

Why not? Evacuee property, ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains were part of the concurrent list, which was abolished as part of the 18th amendment. A number of historical sites under the federal government supervision were thereafter transferred to the Punjab government. However, the Katas Raj complex and many other temples and gurdwaras across Pakistan remained under the control of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), a federal government entity, without any legitimate legal claim. Consequently, most of these sites managed by the ETPB do not have any applicable zoning regulations or even clear demarcation of protected areas. Any inquiry must look into why the ETPB is still managing these sites and why the Punjab government had not taken over their management.

Furthermore, even provincial government agencies do not have the requisite capacity or expertise to manage these sites, as per international standards. In most cases, any restoration work is done either by the communication and works department or outsourced to ordinary civil contactors, without any real expertise in the area. Despite the presence of various laws, the legal framework remains unclear and loose with weak enforcement capacity. Involvement of multiple organisations such as the archaeology department, Auqaf department, ETBP, Punjab Heritage Foundation, etc, creates overlap of responsibilities and makes it unclear who exactly should be held accountable for such a mess.

More alarming is the issue of local governments’ interface with these sites. The structure of local governments is not designed for maintenance of such sites and areas. Not only is there no arrangement on how local governments can partner with the archaeology department to maintain these sites, but the governments were never even sensitised on the issue.

Irrespective of the results of the ongoing inquiry, these sites should be immediately handed over to provincial governments. All these sites should be declared protected areas, with clear demarcation and a buffer zone around them. The issue of involvement of multiple agencies and plethora of laws should be resolved with a simplified and clear legal regime and robust yet fully accountable institutional structure.

The government should issue clear directions to different departments on how to manage these sites, either through revamping the archaeology department with enhanced capacity or seeking assistance from Unesco and other international agencies. There is an urgent need to attend to these sites or else we will probably lose them to industrial and urban development, and future generations will be deprived of their heritage and sources of revenue potential.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2017.

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