Benazir Palace Bhopal – tormented and neglected

The recent controversy about the (sub) leasing away of the Benazir Palace grounds in Bhopal to Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) for the shooting of Prakash Jha’s next film “Satyagraha” revealed the apathetic and negligent manner the Madhya Pradesh Government deals with its assets. The asset in question is no ordinary landed asset; it is a heritage property to boot, of the Nawabi era.

Built in 1877 by Nawab Shahjehan Begum, a great builder like her namesake Mogul Emperor Shahjehan, the Palace was meant to be a pleasure pavilion.  Overlooking the Motiva Talia, one of the three cascading lakes built around the same time to harvest the run-off from the neighbouring Idaho Hills, Benazir Palace is now more than 130 years old and, by all reckoning, should have been treated as a heritage property about thirty years ago. But, no, it was never treated as one and was, very curiously, in the possession of the local medical college. How it went in the possession of the College that is only 57 years old is what beats everyone. Worse, the College, exercising its property rights, leased it out to NCC, which, in turn, leased it out to Prakash Jha’s film outfit, reportedly, for a sum Rs. 5 laky. It is a curious case of a lessee sub-leasing its rights over a property which essentially is public property. Obviously, the district administration was in the know of the transaction as permission for Prakash Jha to shoot in the Palace premises was accorded by the local District Collector.

It was only when the media and the Bhopal Citizen’s Forum raised a furore that the government woke up to the mess that had been created. The Medical College did not have a clue that what it had in its possession was a heritage property and no less. It seemed to have had no qualms in palming off the Benazir grounds to the NCC for a paltry sum for the specious reason that it was involved in some construction on a nearby site. When Prakash Jha came along the lessee must have found it a god-sent opportunity to make some money on the side. Thankfully as a result of the big splash in the Times of India all the irregularities in dealing with the matter have been done away with. The government worked overtime to ready a notification indicating the Palace as a “Protected Monument”. The small delegation of Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had occasion to see it when it met the Commissioner Archaeology. The notification must have been issued by now.

It is not the Benazir Palace alone that the state government has been found to be wanting in protecting Bhopal’s heritage structures. Over the years several such structures, including several gates of the former walled city of Shahjehanabad, were allowed to be occupied by unauthorised people.  Worse, the Taj Mahal Palace, so lovingly built by Shahjehan Begum which later earned kudos from the British high and mighty, too, was most unwisely allowed to be used as a refuge for post-independence migrants from Pakistan. This single thoughtless act of the then government of the province virtually destroyed the Palace. Likewise, Gol Ghar, once an aviary for the Begum and now has mercifully been restored and renovated, was also handed over to police outfits one after the other without the structure ever being cared for. The case of Benazir Palace has been no different. It was allowed to be used as a College. A fire in its laboratory badly damaged some of its parts.

As reports say it is not quite clear about who owns the Palace. However, now that the Department of Archaeology is going to take it over, it is hoped it will be better cared for. Commissioner Archaeology has assured the Citizens’ Forum that even Prakash Jha’s film will be shot in the Palace premises under expert supervision (presumably of archaeologists).

In Madhya Pradesh the mess in maintenance of heritage properties has been created because the state has so far not created in various cities and towns Heritage Conservation Committees. Under the rules for conservation of heritage sites, buildings etc. such committees are to be constituted. One does not know how many heritage sites of historical and cultural significance have been lost to posterity for identification and recognition of their heritage value for want of such committees. It is not too late; perhaps even now the department of culture could initiate the process and constitute such committees at least for cities that have numerous heritage structures and sites located in them or in their vicinity.