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Preservationists Worry 'Progress' May Hurt Indian Heritage Site

The final resting place in India for the 16th century Mughal Emperor Humayun has pitted urban planners and environmentalists against bureaucrats. As VOA's Steve Herman reports from New Delhi, the bureaucrats' determination to improve roads for the 2010 Commonwealth Games could threaten this World Heritage Site.

It is a rare respite in the middle of this city of 13 million people. Here on the grounds of the Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb, birds chirp, tourists stare in awe, and the constant noise of New Delhi's congested traffic is merely a faint rumble.

But some preservationists fear the sanctuary, whose centerpiece inspired the Taj Mahal, is now under threat in the name of relieving traffic congestion.

New Delhi, as part of improvements to prepare for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, plans to widen roads and dig tunnels. Concerned residents say these will come perilously close to mausoleum complex.

The renowned author and civic commentator Patwant Singh, who has lived in New Delhi for 82 years, is outraged. He is worried that the construction and vibrations from automotive traffic will spell doom for the World Heritage Site, along with the Lodi tombs, where other of India's Muslim emperors rest under imposing domes.

"Can that old structure, like Humayun's Tomb or these Lodi tombs, put up with those vibrations? They're built not with reinforced concrete. They're built with lime and stone. They've stood the test of time, but there are also certain limits," he said.

Humayun was the second of the Mughal emperors, who ruled various parts of India, Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan starting in 1526. The line continued in diminished form under British rule until 1857. Humayun's graceful domed mausoleum provided the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, built in nearby Agra by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-1600's.

Singh criticizes bureaucrats and businessmen who, he says, are willing to jeopardize the city's heritage so that athletes will spend a few minutes less stuck in traffic during the 15-day sporting event.

"Delhi is being systematically destroyed by ignoramuses who've no clue of what they're doing. I don't think we need the [Commonwealth] Games here," he added. "If they're totally bent in a most obstinate manner, then what we've got to do is go to court and do everything possible to control the damage."

Caught in the crossfire is the Archaeological Survey of India. The government architects have given the Delhi government strict conditions for the road expansion project, which could cost upward of $200 million.

But superintending architect A.K. Sinha explains that his authority only extends to 300 meters from historic sites, putting most of the construction outside his agency's direct oversight. He can only hope things are done right.

"Whatever decision is finally taken should be based upon scientific analysis and also the side effects of the tunnel," said Sinha.

Architects on both sides of the controversy worry that politics, not science, will determine how close the improved road comes to the historic sites. Indian media report that the prime minister's office has now asked to review the plans.

Patwant Singh says the fact that the Mughals were Muslims, a minority in modern-day India, might play a role in the decision. He wonders aloud whether greater care would be taken if the monuments were linked to the country's majority Hindus.

But architect Sinha bristles at the suggestions that religion might be a deciding factor.

"We have never, never, never for that matter, looked at the heritage properties from that angle, because a heritage is a heritage whether it is Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh or for that matter any other religion," he said.

Just how close the construction comes to Emperor Humayun's mausoleum could ultimately be determined by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO, if duly concerned, could declare that the construction endangers the World Heritage Site.

Such an action, conservationists here say, would pressure the city government to detour the road project farther away from the historic monument.