Indian conservationists have welcomed the government's move to halt the construction of a major shopping and entertainment complex close to the world-famous Taj Mahal. United Nations experts had also expressed concern about the project, which came to light only recently.
A construction company has pulled back its massive cranes after India's tourism and cultural ministry ordered a halt to work on the project, which was planned for barely half a kilometer away from the Taj Mahal.
The Uttar Pradesh state government had planned the $36 million complex to include shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants and other entertainment facilities. The complex was to be built along a two kilometer corridor by partly filling the Jamuna River, which flows behind the monument in the city of Agra.
The 17th Century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. Thousands of laborers and craftsmen toiled for 22 years to craft the stunning white marble edifice.
The state government says it devised the project, which it called the "Heritage Corridor," so that tourists could visit the Taj and other Agra monuments without having to pass through the crowded and polluted city. It also wanted to relocate existing shops outside the Taj, which are being shut down by court order.
Work on the project began last November, but few people were aware about it until a national newspaper reported on the plans last week. The federal government immediately scrambled to stop it.
Even though the project has been halted, conservationists remain alarmed. They say filling the riverbed could damage the ecology of the area. And an independent conservation expert, Ratish Nanda, says not enough attention is being paid to the setting of famous monuments all over India.
"This whole commercial corridor would have affected the grand setting of the Taj and also destroyed a lot of buried archeology in close proximity to the Taj Mahal," said Ratish Nanda. "I don't think the Taj is itself under so much threat, but the setting of the Taj Mahal is being plundered, within meters from the Taj there are squatter settlements coming in and so on."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, says any construction that would alter the grandeur and dignity of the Taj Mahal's surroundings is a matter of grave concern.
Prithviraj Perera, a UNESCO program officer in New Delhi, says the agency is watching the situation closely.
"There is usually a buffer zone, but even beyond the buffer zone if it has a visual impact, tends to alter materially the site, then it should not be done," he said.
The Taj Mahal was one of the first monuments to be put on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. More than 800,000 foreign tourists visit the monument every year.