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Conservation? Massive hotel emerges from ‘repaired’ Mt Abu heritage structure

By Rosamma Thomas* 

Limbdi House was listed in the Master Plan 2030 document of Mt Abu, Rajasthan, as a Grade 1 Heritage Building – the top-most grade among heritage buildings, such buildings are deemed to be of national or historical importance, and no structural changes are permitted. (Limbdi, in Surendranagar district of Gujarat, was a princely state in pre-independence India ruled by the Jhala dynasty.)
Only minimal changes are allowed to such structures, changes considered necessary for prolonging the life of the building. The Ancient Monuments Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 is set to be amended, but those amendments have not yet passed in Parliament.
Yet, local media reported that massive changes have occurred to Limbdi House, which transformed from a structure with about 25 rooms, built with stone and lime, to a large hotel, with over 100 rooms across four floors – built in concrete, and with a large convention centre.
Not only was Limbdi House a heritage structure, it was built in an area in which no construction was allowed – it falls within the Eco-Sensitive Zone of the Mt Abu area, notified by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on June 25, 2009.
What is noteworthy is that the Congress government in Rajasthan appears to have collaborated seamlessly with the BJP government at the Centre to effect changes in law to enable massive construction in this ecologically sensitive area. Local media reported that although the work was described officially as “repairs”, the whole structure has been transformed into a five-star hotel, and the old structure was demolished.
Through notification SO 4029 (E) dated September 29, 2021, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change relinquished its powers to approve the zonal master plan and granted such powers to “the competent authority of the state government”.
Such close collaboration between a Congress-ruled state government and the BJP government at the Centre is a matter worthy of consideration; only recently, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot conceded that when his government was threatened by the rebellion of former deputy CM Sachin Pilot in 2020, BJP's Vasundhara Raje had come to his aid.
Close collaboration between Congress-ruled state government and BJP government at the Centre is a matter worthy of consideration
About a week ago, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena addressed a press conference accusing Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his family of money laundering through a Mauritius-based shell company that was a route to channel the proceeds of “benami” business proceeds from five-star hotels allegedly run by CM Gehlot’s son Vaibhav.
The Eco-Sensitive Zone was created, it may be recalled, under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which grants primary responsibility to the Centre for environment protection.
Satellite images taken in March 2020 and December 2021 show the difference in the constructed area of the Limbdi House:
Nakki Lake in Mt Abu, which for decades has been conserved with a prohibition on construction in its catchment since five decades, was opened up for construction; in 2021, the government released a tender for the construction of a lake overflow system. In 2021, while the country was still in the grip of the Covid-induced lockdown, Mt Abu municipality made changes in the masterplan and invited objections from the public within a period of just 15 days.
Even before these legal changes occurred, though, local media had been reporting about the demolition of Limbdi House and the massive structure that replaced it. The changes effected in law appeared only to legalize what had already been occurring.
Local media did not name the powerful person who was commonly believed to be the owner of the new hotel – former Member of the Legislative Assembly of Rajasthan from Pali, Badri Ram Jhakar, who has also been a Member of Parliament, and is reportedly close to CM Gehlot. The stupendous wealth of this businessman-politician was on vulgar display during the recent wedding of his grandson.
An eco-sensitive zone is meant to serve as a “shock-absorber” for protected areas, to create smooth transition out of protected areas rich in wildlife that need to be conserved. A high-traffic, five-star hotel in such a zone would defeat the purpose of the creation of an eco-sensitive zone.
Residents of Mt Abu have also questioned how local authorities have permitted vast amounts of cement and iron to be moved for this construction, when they face severe constraints in bringing construction material even for repair of their homes. One resident, who did not wish to be named, asserted that such bending of the rules made it evident that the people behind the construction were extremely powerful.
An email to Badri Ram Jakhar seeking a clarification of the changes undertaken during “repairs” of the structure bounced back; phone numbers available for him on the internet too did not work. This reporter continues to attempt reaching him for a response, and this report will be updated if a response is received.
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*Freelance journalist

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