New modern metro threatens India's historic Pink City

New modern metro threatens India's historic Pink City

JAIPUR, India - As she expertly leads tourists past honking cars and rickshaws to a majestic dusty-pink palace, Sunita Sharma voices fears for the northeastern Indian city's historic landmarks as a new transport link looms large.

Authorities are building an underground metro near the Hawa Mahal or the "Palace of the Winds" in Jaipur's old city, a bustling place that blends historic charm with the allure of ancient royalty and draws millions of domestic and foreign visitors.

But archaeologists as well as tourist guides like Sharma fear the multi-million dollar project will disturb the foundations of the monuments, built in the 1700s by the all-powerful Maharaja rulers.

"Jaipur is known worldwide by these monuments, and if any loss occurs, the grandeur and architectural heritage can never be revived," Sharma told AFP.

Tour operator Sanjay Kaushik agreed, adding he feared visitor numbers would also drop because of the years of looming construction work and resulting traffic chaos.

"Tourist season is beginning next month and we fear a decline in the footfall," Kaushik said from his office in the old city.

Tunnelling in the old city is also expected to start next month for the project, which authorities hail as a much-needed upgrade of infrastructure in the "Pink City", capital of the desert state of Rajasthan.

The Jaipur Metro Rail Corporation (JMRC), which is spearheading the multi-year project with a loan from the Asian Development Bank and state government funding, denies the monuments are under threat from tunnelling or from eventual vibrations from the trains.

"An environmental impact assessment report was prepared a year ago which said that the vibrations created during the boring and operation of the metro would not be of a level which can harm any structure," JMRC chairman and managing director N C Goel said.

"The vibrations will be low hence the monuments will be safe," he told AFP, adding that preparations for the tunnelling were at an advanced stage.

But some are not convinced, arguing it is almost impossible to guarantee centuries-old buildings will not be weakened by modern-day construction underneath.

"Today's engineers can guarantee strong foundations of a building they are constructing today, but not those of a structure which was built 200 years back," archaeologist Rima Hooja said.

"The government should reconsider whether they want to create a facility at the cost of heritage," Hooja, a member of the National Monument Authority, told AFP.

"Who will be responsible if a loss to these sites occurs?"

Terrible consequences

One of the metro stations is set to be built at a market that lies just 100 metres (328 feet) from the palace.

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