Seeniammal, a resident of Parameswaran Street in Zamin Pallavaram had acquired a small piece of land for constructing a house three decades ago but never saw this coming. For her as for other residents of the area, the 2010 notification from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), accompanied by a letter from Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, was a bolt from the blue.
According to the notification and letter, Zamin Pallavaram was one among the sites chosen for research by the ASI and hence classified as “Prohibited” or “Regulated.” Effectively what this means is that homeowners in these regions would not be able to undertake any construction or alterations in their property.
“I was shocked when I got to know that I cannot construct anything in the land I own. My husband sold aluminium cutlery at the time, my children were in school. We were hardly ever able to pay their fees on time. Yet, we wanted to ensure a stable future and hence I decided to sell all my jewellery, took a loan at high interest rates and purchased this small piece of land. It was literally a forest, I would be cooking in the kitchen and suddenly I would hear a snake hissing. After years of struggle, we completed building this house and now there are these people who want to snatch the land from us,” says Seeniammal, a shadow of sadness evident in both her tone and face.
The history of this struggle goes back a long way. In 1904, the ASI carried out a study of ancient sites in Tamil Nadu that would be protected under the existing gazette of the time. In 1958, it identified certain sites that would be the ground for research, but it was only in 2010 that The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR, 1958) was validated.
This law requires sites to be grouped into three categories— Protected Area, which forms an actual site for research; Prohibited Area, that is 100 metres surrounding the protected area where residents cannot construct/alter their houses, and Regulated Area, that is 200 metres surrounding the prohibited area where buildings may be altered but only with a ‘No Objection Certificate’ issued by the ASI.
Survey numbers 56 and 63 have been classified as protected areas in Pallavaram, identified as megalithic sites that could aid research on ancient weapons used by people of the Stone Age, who are believed to have inhabited the place and been buried in urns according to ancient Tamil funeral traditions (Mudhumakkal Thazhi). A few selective streets from Wards 12, 13, 16 and 17 fall in the category of regulated areas.
Much of the land in Surveys 56 and 63 were hilly regions that had been extensively mined for extracting blue metals; the area was slowly reduced to a barren, vacant expanse when, in 1967, the state government issued pattas to people below the poverty line. These allottees from the low income groups started constructing houses on the vacant wasteland. Basic amenities were also provided for them in the area by the government.
“Although the research sites were selected in 1958, the official notice was issued only in 2010, following which we have been protesting for exemption of the sites in Pallavaram which had already seen rapid development by the time the notification was issued. The government itself had approved plans for construction in the area. But we are still awaiting a proper response from the Centre,” says V Santhanam, President of the Federation of Civic and Welfare Associations of Pallavaram and Chromepet (FCWAPC).
40% of the hills in Survey number 56 had been destroyed due to the extraction of blue metals by the quarries. But buildings in Survey 63 and in other regulated area were approved by the CMDA. 145 houses of the Tamil Nadu Housing Board also fall under the classified sites.
A long and futile fight
Krishnamurthy, Co-ordinator of the Committee against the AMASR Act, a task force set up by the FCWAPC, says, “We have been approaching politicians since 2011 for a permanent solution. DMK leader M Karunanidhi, during his term (2006-11) as Chief Minister of the state, wrote a letter to the Centre seeking relaxation of the restrictions in our area. This was passed on to the ASI by the Prime Minister. Since we did not receive any further response from ASI, we decided to take this issue to Parliament through our MPs T R Baalu in 2011 and Mythreyan in 2012. But once again, we did not get any redress.”
The Committee has also met the Minister of Culture and Tourism twice and were redirected to the Director General of ASI who did not revert with a solution, adds Krishnamurthy.
A hunger strike in Pallavaram was organized in 2012. When all attempts met a dead end, the FCWAPC filed a legal petition against ASI, New Delhi. Many builders had already submitted their construction plans, but the Madras High Court ordered the CMDA to keep the process of sanctioning on hold.
“The regional director of ASI Chennai circle has written a letter to ASI, New Delhi elaborating upon the plights of people residing in the area and we are yet to receive a response,” says Krishnamurthy.
In 2014, Dr Maheshwari, then Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India Chennai Circle, had also written a letter to the central ASI authorities, asking for exemption of Pallavaram from the specified sites. With this letter, the FCWAPC team approached the Director General of ASI, who said he would take action. But there was no progress.
“To protest the continuous delays in the process, we organized a hunger strike in New Delhi again in September 2016 and got to meet PM Modi, who said he would request the ASI to look into this,” said Krishnamurthy.
When contacted, officials in the Chennai Circle of ASI refused to comment on this, citing the fact that the case was sub judice.
Meanwhile, a group of residents from the ‘regulated’ areas have filed another petition, seeking a no objection certificate for construction/alteration in their properties. The Committee has now challenged this. “This is unfair considering the fact that we are fighting on principle for the residents in both restricted and prohibited areas and our earlier petition is pending in court,” Krishnamurthy clarified.
|A historian’s view
‘“Asking the residents to vacate the area cannot be a permanent solution. The local residents should always be considered. ASI must essentially isolate the properties that do not come into the picture. It is important to be sensitized that the site is after all located in a residential area. We cannot impose something that people don’t want. If we have to, it must be done in a manner that will benefit them also.
Unfortunately, in our country we rarely include all stakeholders in the process. One of the stakeholders is always at the loser’s end, either the public or the historical monuments.
The Centre must also make the process of granting an NOC uncomplicated and the residents should feel comfortable living next to a heritage site. In fact, they should be sensitized so that they are proud of it. They can then happily accept the responsibility of taking care of it, as can be seen in European countries. ASI should understand that it cannot function in isolation.”
– V.Sriram, Historian
And the suffering continues…
Despite all the efforts taken by the residents, the government has tried to measure the protected area twice but met with resistance from the residents. Suresh, a daily wage earner and a resident of Ponniyamman Street says, “All of a sudden, not even a month back, the researchers came to our area and started measuring the area, indicating their intent to start their work. The issue has disturbed our lives intensely, not one of us are able to work in peace.”
He also alleges that complaints raised by residents like him are treated as short-term opportunities for winning votes in the elections. “We do not get electricity supply and we cannot register and claim our lands now. When we questioned all this before the Assembly elections, they fulfilled our wish and resumed power supply. But it has once again been discontinued post-elections,” he says.
Selvi, a resident of Chellan Street, washes dishes for a living and had bought some land here with a loan, to escape the issues that her alcohol-addict husband had created in the neighbourhood where they lived earlier.
“I hand over my entire salary towards the loan. Our stomachs rumble in hunger and we have had to starve for days. But just as I was about to pay my first instalment towards the loan, my neighbours gave me this shocking information and I collapsed the second I heard it. We were not even told of any alternative place where we could live if we are evicted,” says Selvi.
Notwithstanding three hunger strikes, a stage meeting to draw attention to issues and a protest with black flags hoisted by every house in the chosen areas, the voices of people like Suresh, Selvi and Seeniammal seem to fall only upon deaf ears.