Beautification around Jogeshwari Caves stuck, BMC yet to clear encroachment

Thirteen years on, beautification of the area around the ancient Jogeshwari Caves, a historical monument that is surrounded by slums is far from reality. The project that was proposed in 2007 is still on paper as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is yet to clear the encroachments around the site.

Jogeshwari Caves are known to be among the earliest cave temples in India. Around 1,500 years old, this rock-cut cave is said to have been excavated between the excavation of Ajanta and Elephanta caves. It is a major historical site considered as a shrine to Lord Shiva and houses sculptures and pillars belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist architecture.

Though declared as a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), Jogeshwari Caves today lie underneath filth and debris of the Pratap Nagar slums around the monument. The dumping of garbage and the leakage of sewage from the chawls above down the walls of the caves have led to seepage and water stagnation inside the monument, damaging its architectural carvings at many places. Trapped within rapidly growing Pratap Nagar slums, the Jogeshwari Caves are in a mess.

According to the plan, the civic body as part of its beautification project will develop a park within a 25-meter radius of the cave. However, the civic body has failed to clear the encroachment in the way. Not only this, but even the land acquisition process has been stuck due to the same.

These caves date back 520 to 550 CE. In its design and ornamentation, Jogeshwari is transitional, with features reminiscent of older Buddhist caves and Hindu statues less refined than those that would appear later--a missing link in an evolutionary chain.

In 2007, the Bombay High Court had directed to remove encroachments in the area of the cave. Local corporator Anant Nar had recently demanded that land should be acquired for creating a park within 25 meters of the cave. However, the administration says that land acquisition has been stuck currently due to encroachment.

The pitiable condition of Jogeshwari caves first came to light when an NGO Janhit Manch filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in April 2005, urging that the caves need to be preserved. A high court order had then directed the civic body to clear the protected zone of illegal construction and encroachment. Following this, action was taken wherein about 13,000 sqm area around the monument was reserved for a garden, clearing the way for the eviction and resettlement of 750 slum dwellers in the area at that time.

Out of a total of 477 residents that were left in this area, 393 residents were declared as project affected people (PAP). Out of them, families of 60 houses in and around the caves have been shifted and rehabilitated at the nearby Ajgaonkar Road area in Jogeshwari.

"The rest of the families will be rehabilitated only after flats/units to be given to them are available," said a BMC official.

Currently, there are 127 encroachments around the cave area. The BMC administration recently informed the civic improvement committee that they are working to clear the site.

The official added, "Now the remaining encroachments need to be removed, however, the work had to stop due to pandemic. We cannot evict anyone during the pandemic."

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