New Delhi: The Supreme court today refused to vacate for now its status quo order on construction of a multi-level parking near the iconic Taj Mahal, saying there was no harm in tourists walking up to the monument.
The apex court rapped the state government for not coming out with a comprehensive policy to protect and preserve the beauty of Taj Mahal, saying "we need sustainable development".
The court said it first needed to examine the comprehensive action plan to protect the historic structure.
A bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta issued notice to the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) authority and sought to know if there was any comprehensive action plan to protect the Taj Mahal not only from environment point of view but also with regard to other aspects and asked it to produce a vision document.
The bench also asked TTZ authority to explain as why it was not holding meeting every two months as was expected.
TTZ is an area of about 10,400 sq kms spread over the districts of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura, Hathras and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Uttar Pradesh government, said it had all the requisite permissions to construct a multi-level parking a kilometre away from the eastern gate of Taj Mahal and it would be difficult for the tourists if this was not allowed to be made.
"Why don't you construct the parking lot beyond 1.5 km? Tourists can walk up to the monuments," the bench said.
Mehta said if the parking area was not constructed, there would be traffic congestion which will increase the inconvenience for tourists, especially the foriegners.
To this, the bench said "don't worry about foreign tourists, they love to walk".
Mehta said the TTZ had two levels of plan -- short term and long term -- under which there was a need for construction of multi-level parking to avoid congestion as people will come with their vehicles upto the monument. Justice Gupta said when he had visited the monument around 15-20 years ago, he was stopped 1.5 kms away. "When it could happen 15-20 years back, why can't it happen now," he asked. Mehta said as per the plan, which is a vision document, a proposal was there to construct a visitors' centre, but now that plan has been shelved.
"If you are saying this is your vision document, then you are in for a serious problem. We want a vision document which you don't have and that's the whole problem," the bench said.
The court asked the ASG where were over one lakh trees planted under the compensatory afforestation scheme. "Your forest department says that you don't have land for plantation of trees. You can't say that you will plant one lakh tree but I will show you the land after one year," it said.
The bench said the UP government needed to have a broad perspective to preserve and protect Taj Mahal, which is only one of its kind structure in the world, and it was needed to be looked at with a larger perspective of sustainable development.
It posted the matter for further hearing on December 8.
On November 15, the apex court had directed the state to file a comprehensive policy with regard to pollution in TTZ and nearby areas to preserve the monument.
It had taken strong exception that the state had not filed the comprehensive policy before it despite assurances.
The state had said that a policy has been prepared by the TTZ, which was an independent authority.
The apex court had said that there was no urgency for construction of multi-level parking, adding that the state had stopped the construction work in May.
It had earlier stayed its order directing demolition of a multi-level car parking being built near the Taj Mahal and asked the authorities to maintain status quo there.
Environmentalist M C Mehta, who had filed a plea seeking protection of the Taj from the ill-effects of polluting gases and deforestation in and around the area, had earlier told the bench that the TTZ was an "ecologically sensitive area" and the government should have come out with a comprehensive policy for preservation and protection of the Taj. The apex court, which is dealing with Mehta's petition, has been monitoring development in the area to protect the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. The mausoleum is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.