Unchecked construction around the ancient remains of Sirkap, the second  city of Taxila, has endangered the world heritage site. — Dawn
Unchecked construction around the ancient remains of Sirkap, the second city of Taxila, has endangered the world heritage site. — Dawn

TAXILA: Sirkap, the Unesco world heritage site that dates back to the 2nd century BC, is under threat of encroachment by urban construction that has continued around the ancient metropolis.

Sirkap, the second city of Taxila, was heavily influenced by Greek city planning principles introduced after Alexander’s conquest in the 3rd century BC. Sirkap flourished under various regimes beginning with the Greeks, followed by the Scythians, Parthians and Kushanas.

But today the ruins are threatened by urban development. Although declared a ‘protected site’ by the Pakistan government under the Antiquities Act, which says that no development can take place within 200 feet of the site, the law has failed to protect Sirkap.

Encroachment poses a significant threat to the ancient site, along with large scale urbanisation and construction nearby. A visit to the site found that the remains have been encroached upon by private local developers and land grabbers in the last few months.

Local admin official says land demarcation, survey confirms private developers operating on ancient heritage site

‘For sale’ signs have even been put up by the encroachments and some areas have been dug up. A sign placed by the archaeology department barring construction within a 200 metre radius appears to have been ignored.

A local heritage conservation activist, Malik Tahir Suleman, asked how encroachments could be permitted at heritage sites.

He said in 2007 the Supreme Court took notice of illegal activities around 70 historical sites suo motu and directed the Punjab chief secretary to meet the concerned departments and initiate proceedings against those who had encroached on these sites.

He said the court should take notice of the illegal construction around Sirkap, and Unesco should take stock of the situation and raise it at national and international forums to protect the site from destruction.

Historian Raja Noor Mohammad Nazami said apathy and indifference on the part of the concerned officials has led to encroachment and illegal construction in Taxila.

“Apart from putting historical treasures in peril, illegal development and rapid urbanisation have exerted such immense pressure on the ancient remains that the damage being done seems almost beyond repair,” he added.

When contacted, the site in-charge at the Punjab department of archaeology – Sirkap’s custodian – Raja Kamran said the department was aware of the construction activity. He said he had submitted a report on this topic to the higher authorities within the department in order to take legal action under the Antiquities Act.

The acting deputy director of the department said they had sent letters to the police and local administration seeking legal action against the local developments. The department sent letters to the deputy commissioner and the city police officer, he said.

“The department does not have police powers. It can only point out encroachments. If the police and local administration cannot do anything, we cannot do anything,” the official said.

He said the land where construction is being carried out is attached to the ancient site and there could still be antiquities hidden under the rubble. In November 2017, dozens of priceless gold antiquities were discovered during restoration work at the site.

The revenue department has completed land demarcation and a survey that proved local developers were building in violation of the Antiquities Act, Assistant Commissioner Mohammad Faheem told Dawn.

He said the work was carried out on the complaint of the archaeology department and local police had been asked to take action to protect the site.

Sources said the site had been endangered by private buildings due to apathy of the concerned authorities. FIRs were previously lodged under the Antiquities Act for construction within a 200 metre radius of the site, they said. But no legal action was taken against violators.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2020