In 1851, the British established the first school in Punjab, the Zila School, Amritsar. The first head master was an European, but in 1895, SB Singh Ahluwalia took over. He later became the first Indian inspector of schools. The school was re-named after the great martyrs of the Battle of Saragarhi (12 September 1897).
The battle is the story of 21 brave men of the 36th Sikh Regiment (currently 4th Sikh Regiment) who sacrificed their lives to save the Saragarhi Fort. It is one of eight stories of collective bravery published by UNESCO. The school is also the place where the ‘Singh Sabha Movement’ originated. It has produced eminent scholars like Bhai Vir Singh who is described as ‘the sixth river’ of the state. Several senior government officers, bureaucrats and doctors are former students of this institution.
The Government Saragarhi Senior Secondary School was once Saragarhi Memorial Government Senior Secondary School, and situated near the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) had declared the campus as a historical building. It was a memoir of the tale of the brave martyrs of the Battle of Saragarhi. It was also, the only government school for boys in the walled city where a variety of subjects and vocational courses were taught to about 800 poor and needy students, who came from far off places.
The school library had over 27,000, mostly rare, ancient books. What the school did not expect was that in 2003, after about 153 years of establishment, the government will decide to demolish it. To make way for a multi-storied parking complex. The parking lot is part of the proposed elevated road from GT Road to the Golden Temple. The Chief Minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal has recently claimed that Rs 210 crores would be spent for it. Another Rs 73 crores would be spent for the ‘beautification project’ around the Golden Temple.
So, for the smooth implementation of the plan and to ease the traffic congestion near the Temple, the local administration decided to demolish the building. It is also planning to build a helipad on top of the parking lot. When the school authorities came to know about this plan, they decided to challenge the decision.
GT team found that most of the roads in Amritsar are in a state of serious disrepair. They are dug up everywhere, with no traffic management at all. On the way to the Golden Temple, the auto driver informed that most of the roads have been on a “being built” state for the last 6-7 years! So, shouldn’t this huge amount of money be spent on the ‘beautification’ of the entire road system rather than just one road? After all, traffic congestion can be eased only if there are good roads in every part of the city, not only near the Temple.
The decision makers were the State Government, the Municipal Corporation and other officials, and the pro-school protagonists were Dr.Krishan Thakur, President of National Welfare Society, the students and staff members of Saragarhi School, the ASI and the concerned citizen of city. Dr. Thakur filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Punjab and Haryana High Court protesting against the construction of the parking complex. After a long wait of four months, the Court ruled in favour of the State government, saying that it should have the authority to decide how it protects its heritage sites. The challengers decided to contest the ruling, and took the case to the Supreme Court.
The new verdict was not much different. The Court said that the school is a ‘government school’ so, the State Government has the right to demolish it. And obviously, the Government executed its ‘right’. Nothing could come in the way of “development” – not the heritage site or its history, not the students or teachers… nothing. The most appalling aspect of this case is that the Courts and the Government completely over-looked the reports against the demolition presented by the ASI and the Department of Cultural Affairs, Archeology and Museum of Punjab. The decision-makers forgot that this ‘beautification’ step near the Golden Temple, will at the end of the day harm the monument itself.
As per the buffer zone law of UNESCO for heritage buildings, and instructions of the Air Pollution Board, parking areas should be at least two kilometres away from monuments, specially those made of marble. But, the proposed parking lot is just about 450 metres away from the Golden Temple complex, which is lined with rare pure white marble. Did the Government miss this fact or is it short-sightedness?
The former school premises had many ancient trees like Bohar and Peepal; most of them were more than 150 years old. All these trees were auctioned and uprooted without sparing a thought. And the task was completed overnight. “We filed a PIL against the cutting of the trees. The very next morning when we woke up, we found that all the trees had been prooted. Not axed, but uprooted, so nothing remained of the trees”, says Manisha, a teacher of Saragarhi School. Bulldozing of the historical school was not the end of problems for the students and staff members of Saragarhi School. The school has been shifted to a new building on the Amritsar-Jalandhar road, which has a 220kv high grid electricity pylon within its campus!
The new blow
The Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) and a committee constituted by the Education Department opposed the reallocation of students to the new building. They pointed out 17 problems in the building, including lack of sewer facilities and laboratories. The step also violated the PSEB rules, 1956, against the construction of buildings near power grids. But, the State government shifted the students, ignoring the recommendations of the expert committees, that too, in the middle of the academic session. Though Rs 2 crore has been spent on the new school building, it does not compensate for the risk that the students and other staff members are taking everyday.
What is it? Is it the whim of a Government, or its negligence? A power-play of influence and people? Political show-biz? Or something more deep-rooted? The Government is constructing the parking complex for developing the area near the Golden Temple. But, its very notion of development is marred. “Development” at the cost of a heritage building, its history and the glory, a school and its students, and environment is unacceptable. What do you feel about it? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(*The Green Schools Report was based on the new school building)