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Ruining A Revival
June 07, 2012
Ruining A Revival

The restoration of the Jal Mahal palace in Jaipur under a public-private partnership could have become the blueprint for saving our derelict heritage. But what followed was a slew of petitions and a legal tangle that threatens to derail similar projects all over the country. Revati Laul unravels the intriguing story


07 July 2012

HAVE YOU ever seen a rough diamond?” asked Navratan Kothari, his 70-year-old voice, a tragicomic mix of despair and hope. The diamond he described is an 18th century palace of pleasure — the Jal Mahal. A jewel that floats in the middle of Jaipur’s Man Sagar, one of India’s largest manmade lakes. Until Kothari ‘polished’ it, the Jal Mahal and the surrounding 17th century lake had been the dumping ground of the city’s sewage. The palace with sewage-soaked walls and ravaged floors was in ruins. The Man Sagar lake in which it sat was a floating cesspool. The migratory birds were long gone. The Mahal’s only inhabitant — the occasional lost pig.

In 2010, after a six-year clean-up, the Man Sagar became a proud home to more than 40 species of nesting birds. Cormorants flew in and out. Ducks waddled on the now-pleasant smelling waters. A large turtle lifted its big green head to bask in the afternoon sun. A group of pink flamingoes returned. And the Jal Mahal, restored and resplendent, was a gleaming palace of pleasure once again.
Bubbling under the surface, however, were countercurrents that stacked up this story differently. As a story of crimes and misdemeanours. Three petitioners took Navratan Kothari to court, charging him with criminal conspiracy. Of cheating and forging documents to snatch priceless heritage for private profit.

The police probed these allegations against this perceived heretic three times, each time returning to the Rajasthan High Court without a smoking gun. But the court wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It chided the police for failing to see a larger conspiracy between Kothari and political actors, and on 16 November 2011, issued a non-bailable warrant against him. Then, on 17 May this year, Chief Justice Arun Mishra ruled that the work done by Kothari’s company be reversed. The nalas that had been diverted from the lake must be restored to their former condition. In other words, the sewage nalas were directed to be channelled back to the lake. There was a warrant out for Kothari’s arrest, forcing him to flee the city; until reprieve came on 25 May. That’s when the Supreme Court stayed the Rajasthan High Court order, putting the question of Kothari’s criminal culpability in pause mode till both sides of the case are heard.

Conspirator or not, the story of Navratan Kothari is the kernel around which much larger questions of development, history, culture and conservation are woven. In the unravelling of the story of the Man Sagar and the Jal Mahal lies the answer to a basic question — do we value our heritage? Do we aspire to turn our cities into concrete-and-glass citadels and ‘Shanghai’ them down a certain path? Or do we care to listen to the voices of old cities such as Jaipur, Delhi, Hyderabad or Lucknow and look in their ramparts for answers to sustainable living.

In 2004, the government told Kothari that if he wanted to do more, he’d have to spend his own money on the clean-up job But like all good crime stories, it’s important to describe the jewel in question. In 1596, Rajasthan was in the grip of a severe famine. To prevent a recurrence, the ruler of Amer, Raja Man Singh I, built a dam on what was then the Darbhawati river to create the Man Sagar lake in 1610. In 1727, two decades after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died and the empire’s grip on princely states such as Rajasthan had loosened, Raja Jai Singh asserted himself and built the fortified city of Jaipur. In true Rajput fashion, the warrior king soon felt the need for a pleasure pavilion to get away from the war and intrigue that was his day job. So, the Jal Mahal was built in 1734 as a weekend getaway.

After Independence, the lake and palace became the property of the Rajasthan government and was slowly turned to wasteland. By 1962, the expanding city of Jaipur needed vents to discharge the city’s growing volumes of sewage. The two stormwater nalas of Nagtalai and Bramhapuri became the dumping ground, carrying the refuse from the city directly into the lake. The stench from the lake was unbearable for people living in the vicinity. Rafiq Ahmed, 77, who lives in Hazrat Ali Colony at the edge of the lake, describes the discomfort: “When I got my daughter married here 21 years ago, the guests said ‘Instead of food and drink, we wish you had supplied us with ittar (perfume).”

THE STRUGGLE to get Jal Mahal out of the stink began in 1999 when the state government asked private developers to clean up the Man Sagar lake and restore the Jal Mahal under a public-private partnership — the new buzzword to get private investors interested in development. The state would do its bit to clean up the lake by tapping into the Rs 25 crore National Lake Development Fund. The private firm would do the rest — restore the Mahal and also pay for the annual maintenance of both the monument and lake. In return, the company would get 100 acres in the vicinity of the lake, which it could develop into a tourist hub.

Many companies, including those with vast experience in restoring heritage, such as the Neemrana Group, attended the pre-bid meeting. But as Neemrana founder Francis Wacziarg pointed out, the road ahead in such a project could be rocky. So his group, along with other interested parties, beat a hasty retreat. “It was so complicated and very demanding in cost and we didn’t have those kind of funds to clean up the lake. And in our experience, in public-private partnerships, the P of the private works but the P of the public does not seem to work,” he says.

Eventually, it came down to three companies, and the KGK Consortium led by Kothari won the bid by quoting a price 39 percent higher than the nearest rival. It also paid the minimum bid amount that was 1.5 times more than what the state government had asked for ( Rs 2.5 crore). The KGK Consortium was an amalgam of various companies led by Kothari and christened The Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd.

Kothari’s team soon found out that Wacziarg was right about the public part of the partnership not quite working. After emptying Rs 25 crore from the lake fund, at the time the property was handed over to Kothari in 2004, the lake was still stinking. The government told Kothari that if he wanted to do more, he’d have to spend his own money on the clean-up job. So, project director Rajeev Lunkad hunted high and low for someone who knew how to restore a manmade lake. Finally, he zeroed in on German engineer Harald Kraft, who took one look at the stinking Man Sagar lake and said, “It’s an impossible task. You guys are mad to try cleaning this. I love it, I’ll do it.”

First, Kraft’s team decided to join the two sewage nalas so that all the dirt converged at once place, making it easier to clean. This water was treated and then diverted into a sedimentation tank carved from a small corner of the lake. It was designed like a deep trough so that the plastic and other refuse would settle at the bottom to be scooped out later; and the clean water could flow back into the lake. But this wasn’t enough. The 250-acre lakebed had soaked up so much sewage since the 1960s that it had to be dredged out entirely and refilled.

In the first rain after the sedimentation tank was built and the nalas diverted, the results were dramatic. According to studies conducted by specialists hired by the Jal Mahal Resorts, in the summer of 2007, the organic waste measured in BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) showed a sharp drop. It was 450 BOD going into the sedimentation tank, but only 25 coming out. The number of e-coli bacteria in the lake had also shrunk; from 24 lakh in 2000 to just 7,000 in 2009-11. People living in the adjoining colonies said from 2009 on, they could proudly declare their address to relatives and guests with heads held high instead of in shame. The stench was gone and so was the unbearable swarms of mosquitoes.

Meanwhile, the team was also busy restoring the Jal Mahal. Historian Giles Tillotson, who has written extensively on the history of Jaipur, figured out how this would be done. “If you want to give a building life, it has got to be a new life. You can’t turn back time,” he said. This meant keeping the spirit of the pleasure palace intact, but intelligently reusing it. The interiors of the Jal Mahal became a moveable feast of pleasure paintings from the past two centuries. Blown up to dramatic scale, they are an ode to the rain gods and to water.

Vibhuti Sachdev curated the art alongside anthropologist and restoration expert Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites. And so, the arts and crafts of Jaipur, languishing in forgotten museums in cobwebbed corners, got a new lease of life. Sachdev explained how craftspersons, often used only for repair work, now had the opportunity to drive the design of the project.

Deependra Singh, who was managing the craftspersons, was misty eyed when he described how it all came together. The scarred floors and ceiling — ravaged by time and neglect — were marbled and latticed, turning the gnarled face of the palace into the ravishing beauty it once was. “All your names and addresses will be put up next to your work,” Singh told the craftspersons. “Well, if foreign tourists, especially women, are going to see my work, please write my name in English,” said one artist with excitement.

The biggest challenge was the reconstruction of the terrace garden, the crown jewel of the pleasure palace. Crites, who was mainly responsible for this, decided it would be filled with scented white flowers from around Jaipur — chamelis, champas and white lotuses. It was named Chameli Bagh. The garden is a happy blend of 18th century India and contemporary playfulness with some drama added by fountains and cleverly embedded lighting.

The lighting was a masterstroke of specialist Dhruvjyoti Ghosh, whose firm has lit up the Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi and the Sydney Opera House. The ensemble gives the Jal Mahal a mystical, magical look after sunset. Even before the garden work was done, it made it to a BBC sponsored book, Around The World In Eighty Gardens by British journalist Monty Don.

With the lake now clean and full of water, project director Rajeev Lunkad turned to Deependra Singh one Friday morning with a seemingly impossible deadline. “I need a boat in this lake by Monday.” Deependra went to Varanasi in search of boatmen and a day later had managed to track down a suitable man with a traditional timber boat. There was the small matter of convincing him to sell his best boat and also accompany it to Jaipur, leaving his flourishing business in Varanasi behind. That’s when Shah Rukh Khan came to the rescue. “I told the boatman Aashu, ‘Come with me to Jaipur. The company I work for owns a big multiplex. We will go see the new Shah Rukh Khan film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’.” That did it. Aashu found a large container to cart the boat to Jaipur and by Monday morning the first of four timber boats set sail in the cool, clean waters of the Man Sagar lake. Four centuries of damage were undone in six short years. Jaipur had recovered a piece of itself.

BUT NOT everyone was happy. Precisely when the palace was ready for its first batch of tourists, a certain set of observers decided it was time to be upset. Bhagwat Gaur, 30, a high court lawyer, had been making an inventory of activities around the lake. His biggest objection was the fact that land along a lake, which is a natural resource, was given away for private development, for what he felt was a ridiculously low price. Gaur dug into the tendering process and the conditions of the bid. Kothari’s actions were now being written up in rough police registers as crimes.

For Gaur, the entire bidding process violated the principles of public trust because the lake was sandwiched between reserved forest and no environment impact study had been done before carving out the project for the bid. He also alleged that the government filled up 13 bighas of the lake with silt to make up for the 100 acres leased out to Kothari’s company for the lakeside development project. That the value of the 100 acres in 2010 (when Gaur took the matter to the Rajasthan High Court) was Rs 3,500 crore, so leasing it out for an annual fee of Rs 2.5 crore was a paltry sum for the government to collect. It amounted to “handing over a valuable natural resource to a private entrepreneur at the cost of the public”.
Furthermore, Gaur argued that carving out the sedimentation tank from within the lake ruined the lake’s architecture and ecology. And finally, the original bid said the project would be given to a public or private limited company but Kothari’s firm was neither. It was a partnership firm and the rules were bent to suit them, making the bid a violation of the Constitution and illegal.

Kothari’s lawyers argued against these claims, backed by the state government — whose various agencies were also named criminal conspirators. They argued that the Man Sagar lake does not come under the category of reserved forest land, that the government agencies had, in fact, got all the necessary clearances for the project. That it was earmarked for a public-private partnership right from the 1975 Jaipur city Master Plan onwards. That if the government indeed acquired 13 bighas of lake to make up a 100 acres to be given on lease, then equally, the restoration of the lake has also resulted in its spreading over a larger area than before. So that the lake size has actually increased from 250 acres to more than 300 acres, as per revenue records.

Kothari’s team also argued against the perception that the 100 acres was leased out for a song. They said that in 2003 when the bid was won, the land price was Rs 900 crore and not Rs 3,500 crore. In addition, the built-up area they are allowed is only 6 percent of that. So the price of the land they are allowed to build on was actually worth not more than Rs 50 crore.

Crucially, they questioned the logic of the petitioner’s case that property around a lake should not be leased out. They argued that the Jal Mahal is not a protected monument and had fallen into neglect. Why would a private party restore it unless there is an incentive, especially since the cleaning up of the lake and the monument eventually cost Kothari’s consortium Rs 80 crore? Instead of an outright sale of the land along the lake, the government felt it would be wiser to ask the private developer to put aside a recurring deposit every year for 99 years. The private party would benefit by not having to pay a fat sum upfront. And the government would get an annual maintenance fee instead. They also made the point that the sedimentation tank that ate into 5 percent of the lake was set up to clean the lake — to restore and improve its ecology, not the other way around. And that the government had allowed a partnership firm to be part of the bid because their financials were all in place and that it increased the competition in the bidding.

The high court remained unconvinced of the arguments made by Kothari’s team. It ruled that the bid was indeed fraudulent, unconstitutional and a violation of public trust. However, to get lost merely in the legalese of the Jal Mahal case is to miss an important point. Hiding in the subtext of the court papers is the real reason the restoration of the Man Sagar lake and Jal Mahal were so supremely stuck: Politics.

THE TELLING of this part of the story is not straightforward at all. But it all begins with asking one question — who are the petitioners and why did people like Bhagwat Gaur decide one fine day to make the restoration of the Jal Mahal a cause to fight for? Especially since he admitted to TEHELKA that he had not actually set foot on the lake or inside the Jal Mahal after it had been restored. The last time he had been in there was as a student, many years ago. It was only in 2010, after four years of work on the lake and palace were over that Gaur, having watched big earth-moving machines in operation from afar, decided that this disturbed him. A story in the Rajasthan Patrika headlined, ‘Will the lake be without water?’ added to his alarm. “The government should not give monuments to the private sector for protection. Not just the Jal Mahal. Even the Neemrana Fort in Alwar was given to a private company. I’m against that,” he said.

Gaur founded a society called Dharohar Bachao Samiti (DBS) and got it registered in March 2010. Two months later, he filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd in the Rajasthan High Court. It seemed curious to TEHELKA that Gaur’s interest in heritage was sparked only two months before he filed the PIL. However, Gaur explains that the society had been meeting informally for a few months before that. But when the Jal Mahal project became his big cause, he realised that the DBS needed to be formally registered.

Where did Gaur’s vehement disapproval stem from? Had he spoken to conservationists or lake experts? “Some things cannot be disclosed,” was his mysterious reply. Then, there was another curious event. Soon after the PILwas filed, Gaur and DBS president Ved Prakash Sharma had a public fallout. Gaur called him unscrupulous and a double-dealer and asked him to leave the society. At which point, Sharma filed an independent case against the restoration after registering himself as a separate society — the Heritage Conservation Society. Sharma’s lawyer Aruneshwar Gupta vouches for his client’s integrity and commitment to the cause of heritage. “He’s a historian. Not a published historian but a social historian. Let me put it this way, he is a social activist. One of his PhDs is on the heritage of Jaipur.”

One year after Gaur and Sharma formed conservation societies and took the Jal Mahal project to court, a third petitioner joined their campaign. Professor KP Sharma, head of the Botany Department at Rajasthan University, told the high court that after the restoration, the lake’s salinity had increased to alarming levels. His report has became part of all three court petitions.

The fact that salinity levels of lakes in urban areas constantly increase over time is a universal truth among botanists. The Man Sagar lake is in the middle of a dense metropolis where the groundwater is highly polluted. For KP Sharma to extrapolate from the increasing salinity levels that it will lead to the entire lake drying up is not based on scientifically verifiable data, say other botanists. A study published in the Journal of Hydrological Research and Development pours cold water on Sharma’s theory. Using primary data collected by the Jal Mahal Resorts and some data of their own, scientists AB Gupta and three others concluded that the “lake restoration measures like the diversion of sewage from the treatment plant and provision of the settling tank have resulted in a significant improvement of lake water quality”.

But the real clue to the politics at work behind the stalled Jal Mahal restoration comes not just from the intent or background of the petitioners, but a point they made in their petition. They had told the court that Navratan Kothari’s biggest crime was that he was favoured by the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government, since the lease was signed just a day before its term ended in December 2003. And for the most of the Vasundhara Raje Scindia-led BJP regime that followed, the fresh development plans for the 100-acre lakefront plot were never signed.

In fact, one of the partners in Kothari’s consortium is the firm Kalpatru, believed to be close to Gehlot. It is widely alleged that it is this connection that got Kothari the project in the first place. As a result, a project setting out to give back Jaipur a piece of itself was caught in a political slugfest between the Congress and the BJP.

The timing of the lawsuits against Kothari’s firm makes for even more interesting observation. Even though the lease was signed on the last working day of the Congress regime, the project was reviewed at great length by the BJP-led Raje government. On 27 October 2004, the BJP government signed the lease and licence deeds. The permission to converge the two nalas and de-silt the lake was given by the environment ministry and the state Urban Development Secretary. It was only after the restoration work was complete and the time had come for Kothari to rake in some profit by developing the 100 acres by the lakeside that he was taken to court.

While the restoration work continued even under the BJP government’s tenure, the new layout plans for the hotel, restaurant and crafts bazaar that were to be built on the lakefront, got stuck in approvals. These plans eventually got passed in 2009, when the Congress returned to power. This became the subject of a heated political debate in the state Assembly.

In February 2011, Rajasthan Tourism Minister Bina Kak raised questions about the intent of the Raje government in holding up the Jal Mahal development plans from 2006 to ’08. She accused the BJP of deliberately holding up the plans because an illegal demand for a partnership in the project didn’t come through. This was Kak’s oblique way of hinting that the Raje government had its eye on the Jal Mahal project and that was why the project’s plans were held up. The BJP MLAs denied these allegations and stormed out of the Vidhan Sabha.

The questions triggered by the debate hovered over the Jal Mahal project like dark clouds. They also led TEHELKA to ask if there were any links between the petitioners and Raje. The legal counsel for two of the petitioners denied ever having met the former CM on the Jal Mahal issue. But a curious happenstance TEHELKA stumbled upon makes these denials seem less convincing. When TEHELKA contacted Raje to ask her about the Jal Mahal project, she said, “I will get my office to send you documents on the case. Read those and then we can talk.” Her press secretary emailed TEHELKA the court documents and also a list of points titled ‘Jalmahal synopsis’. It’s an email that her office did not realise would connect Raje directly to the Jal Mahal petitioner — Bhagwat Gaur. The email was actually a forward from Raje’s email account, where the original sender was Gaur’s lawyer Ajay Jain. When TEHELKA confronted Raje’s office on this connection between her and the petitioner, we were informed that it was for our benefit that Raje’s office had contacted the petitioner. “You can write what you like but there is no connection between the petitioners and Raje,” her press secretary said with consternation.

A STORY that started out as an attempt to protect and restore the Man Sagar and Jal Mahal had now become the theatre for ugly political shadowboxing. Alongside Kothari, three other government officials, who signed on various documents approving the Jal Mahal restoration, were also named as criminals and co-conspirators. But if the government and Kothari are the villains of the piece, then many others in the conservation business argue, it’s a forbidding omen for future public-private partnerships.

Indeed, the Jal Mahal restoration story is the pivot around which much larger questions turn. It could either be held up as a role model for how much of our heritage can be saved or an ominous sign that heritage is the new theatre for property wars; its new protectors, the real heretics. Which leads us to the overwhelming question — How should we protect and preserve our history, culture and identity?
Conservation architect Anisha Shekhar Mukherji says Kothari’s predicament is faced by many, including herself. While working on Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, she said: “The entire process of what we were doing had to be re-explained each time the head of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) changed.”

The Aga Khan Trust project director Ratish Nanda puts this in sharp relief. “We still look at heritage as a burden rather than an asset, which it actually is,” he says. “If Agra was in Europe, the quality of the citizens’ lives would be very high. We need to move from a punishment-based system to an incentive-based system, including the change of land use and tax exemptions. Right now, there are no incentives but a lot of penalties.”

Conservationist Gurmeet Rai zeroed in on a crucial missing piece. India has no legal framework for public-private partnerships. Rai, who is the director of Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative, explains how world over, partnerships are the byproduct of an overview a country has of its heritage. However, in India, no roadmap exists. Therefore, the projects that Rai has been part of have also got stuck in court.

One such was the Nabha Fort in Punjab. Like the Jal Mahal project, this was also a public-private partnership. The project was the initiative of the grandson of the Maharaja of Nabha. But a petitioner feared that the private player will turn the fort into a mall and filed a public interest litigation. The Punjab High Court eventually gave what Rai calls a “historic verdict”. It said that encouraging the private sector to invest in cultural heritage is a good thing.

We are now in the 150th year of the Archaeological Survey of India. While conservationists such as Rai, Mukherji and Nanda all work with and respect the expertise of the government body, there is a universal agreement on the need for change. In the way heritage is viewed, and contracts are drawn up. Everyone agrees that given the vast number of forgotten palaces and vandalised forts we have, and the countless forms of lived heritage in our midst, preservation cannot just be the job of the government. The private sector will need to step in.

But if public-private partnerships are the way forward, the road ahead will have to be paved with more than just good intentions. The Jal Mahals and Man Sagar lakes need to exist in an environment that understands why we need our past. And how it is an important part of our present. We need cities to be spaces where malls and monuments are not necessarily opposites. But can speak to each other through shared spaces.

The apex court will now decide whether Kothari’s revival of the Jal Mahal was right or wrong. Whether the 80 crore he has already spent in restoring the lake, the lakefront and the Jal Mahal brings something back to the city. Or if people like Gaur are right in asking for the sewage nalas to be put back into the lake. But Kothari’s real crime is now firmly established. As someone whose vision for Jaipur is caught in a forgotten circus of administrative and legal holes. Where contracts are part of political jugglery. Kothari is a private player on a public trampoline. For this, he is now being punished.