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Friday, July 16, 1999

In Shiv shahi, Aga Khan Palace has no place?

Vinita Deshmukh  
PUNE, July 15: A stately, heritage structure, Pune's Aga Khan Palace has for long been a national treasure. Ever since that special man who the nation calls Mahatma Gandhi became its occupant in 1942, a year that became the turning point of our freedom struggle. But five decades later, the palace has joined that seemingly unending list of historical structures which have fallen on bad days for want of government funds.

Donated by Prince Karim Aga Khan in 1969, and called the Gandhi National Memorial since then, the palace is now gasping for survival as the State Government funds for its upkeep have dried up since 1996.

And to think this was the place so close to the heart of the Mahatma. For, it was here that his beloved Ba -- the world knew her as Kasturba -- breathed her last. Even the Mahatma's personal secretary Mahadevbhai Desai rests here.

On the lawns of this palatial building, resting on 19 acres of land, once walked the tallest of men who strode the face of earth, one who meant everything to India's freedom movement. But the powers-that-are in Maharashtra have obviously forgotten all about it.

How else can one explain the silence of Narayan Rane, present Chief Minister, his predecessor Manohar Joshi, Cultural Affairs Minister Pramod Navalkar? Shobhana Ranade, the secretary of the Gandhi National Memorial Society, the caretaker, who has been corresponding for a good four years, herself is at a loss.

``I don't think there is any deliberate attempt by the government to see the steady destruction of this palace. But somewhere, there seems to be a loophole. In fact, this May, Navalkar assured us that Rs 30 lakh was being sanctioned on a priority basis. But nothing has happened,'' Ranade told this correspondent.

For want of maintenance funds, the palace today is an epitome of neglect. Walls with peeling plaster, chipped at many places, and leaking ceilings are threatening to destroy some of the most valuable and rare photographs of our national struggle.

One of the pictures -- a close-up of Gandhiji as a young man -- is in a pathetic condition. Half the face has been smudged because of seepage. Unlikely, that it can be revived. Another photograph, capturing the writings of Gandhiji, is almost gone.

Everywhere, the neglect is stark. Callously thrown electric wires, absence of lighting as the bulbs are missing or the connections are loose, a dank smell in the two galleries, dust lining most paintings and photographs that depict the life of the Mahatma the whole thing shames a visitor.

Outside the palace, the once-sprightly fountains look forlorn minus water. One could even spot some thermocol glasses making a little clutter outside the galleries. It is difficult to escape the deterioration.

This shabby state of the palace probably has to do with the confusion on which State department should handle the funding of this palace. In 1969, during the Gandhi centenary year, the palace was gifted to the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the headquarters of which is in Delhi, by Prince Karim Aga Khan. Since the mid-1970s, the Gandhi National Memorial Society, an affiliation of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, is the caretaker.

In 1974, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi visited the palace and asked the then chief minister Vasant Naik to provide annual funds for the upkeep of the palace. What began as a Rs two lakh grant per year, steadily to rose to as many as Rs 10 lakh per year. Upto the early 1990s.

But, says Ranade: ``The State Government did not make any permanent arrangement. Earlier, the education department was in charge of releasing the funds. It was then transferred to the social department, and last year, the fate of the funds for this national monument has been left into the hands of the cultural affairs ministry. However, it is the PWD department that has been generally assessing the requirement of funds every year, and make provisions accordingly.''

The woes of the Aga Khan Palace began in 1989-90 when no funds came by. Since early 80s, it had been receiving a sanction of Rs six lakh to Rs 10 lakh every year. In 1991-92, there was no grant. Then in 1994-95, it received Rs 13,70,844. In 1995-96, there was again no grant. And it was ditto in 1997-98. ``But in 1997-98 we received a special grant of Rs 10 lakh on the occasion of the golden jubilee of India's Independence. It had nothing to do with our annual grant,'' said Ranade. In 1998-99, there was again not a paisa as grant.

Now, the neglect of this landmark monument has attained a political hue with the city Congress unit threatening to agitate. States Mohan Joshi, city Congress chief: ``This is not a political issue. There is no such remarkable memorial in the entire country, and yet it is being ignored by the State Government. Twenty per cent of the visitors everyday comprise foreigners and what they take back is a sorry memory of the Father of the Nation.'' Joshi says he has written to the Chief Minister for immediate release of funds. Failing which, Joshi and his supporters plan a dharna to protest the neglect of the monument.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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