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Indore tragedy: Were authorities unaware that temple existed over a closed stepwell?

Case registered against temple trust office bearers; mayor suspends two officials

stepwell-tragedy The temple where the tragedy took place

Municipal authorities in Indore claim to have no idea that the ancient stepwell, which collapsed leading to the death of 36 devotees in Patel Nagar, was closed with a flimsy concrete cover and converted into a temple by Shri Beleshwar Mahadev Jhulelal Mandir Trust.

Indore Mayor Pushyamitra Bhargava told THE WEEK that the IMC (Indore municipal corporation) was not aware that a stepwell had been covered and converted into a temple. “The stepwell in question was covered about four decades ago. We conducted a survey of the water bodies in Indore two years ago, but this stepwell was not recorded, as it was covered. Who did all these constructions 40 years ago and under what circumstances, remain to be seen,” the mayor said.

The mayor said the IMC had given notice to the temple trust on a new illegal temple construction being done on adjacent land (earmarked for a community garden) twice – in April 2022 and in January 2023. However, the officials did not pay attention to the existing flimsy temple/stepwell structure, also allegedly illegal, which collapsed, resulting in the death of 36 people on the day of Ramnavami.

This is despite the fact that in the written reply to a notice served by IMC in April 2022, the temple trust, while denying any illegal construction and accusing the authorities of trying to hurt the religious sentiments of the devotees, had twice mentioned the covered stepwell and the plan to restore it. 

The reply also mentioned that the IMC authorities have requested several times to open the stepwell. This gives rise to the question of whether the IMC authorities were aware of the presence of a covered stepwell under the existing temple structure.

The reply letter was signed by Sevaram Galani, president of the Shri Beleshwar Mahadev Mandir Trust. An FIR under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code has now been registered against Galani and also the secretary of the temple trust.

However, the IMC went ahead to give an order of removal of the new illegal construction in January 2023, obviously ignoring the mention of the stepwell and its restoration.

This order too was not executed by officials even after the passage of seven days of the second notice period (to remove illegal construction voluntarily).

The mayor told THE WEEK that a building officer and a building inspector have been suspended for failing to execute the order of removal of illegal (new) construction and an inquiry has been ordered into the matter along with the magisterial probe into the entire incident as ordered by the chief minister.

CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, meanwhile, ordered a survey of all covered dug wells, stepwells and open borewells across the state and suitable action thereafter, to avert tragedies like the one that happened in Indore or the repeated tragedies related to falling of kids in open bore-well pits.

Step-well flimsily covered

As per the available information, the stepwell situated in Patel Nagar, part of the scheme number 31 of the Indore Development Authority (IDA), is at least 200 years old. Its 800 square feet top opening (mouth) was covered first with a metal lid and then only four iron girders were laid and normal metal rebars and concrete were used to form a thin cover over the mouth. This was then paved with tiles to form the floor of the temple structure (Shri Beleshwar Mahadev Jhulelal Mandir). Then, walls were constructed around this ‘floor’ and a tin shed was set up as a roof to the temple. 

Idols of Lord Shiva and other Hindu gods are placed at the edge of the covered stepwell, close to the walls constructed around it. The idols are said to be present at the edge of the stepwell from before the construction of the temple structure.

The devotees were sitting on this flimsy roof of the stepwell/floor of the temple and performing fire ritual (havan) on Ramnavami, when the tragedy occurred on Thursday.

Four stepwells covered and converted into temples, community hall’ 

Activist Kishore Kodwani, who is a resident of the Sarvodaya Nagar of scheme 31 of Indore Development Authority since its inception in 1971, said the stepwell in question was a part of four interconnected networks of stepwells in the locality. He claimed that these stepwells were a source of water to the locality through an overhead water tank constructed by IDA till 2000.

“However, now all these four stepwells are covered and converted into temples including the one involved in the tragedy. One of the temples is inside a community hall built by the IMC itself. When the government agency itself is involved in the process, how can others be blamed or questioned for the illegal temple constructions?” Kodwani said while speaking to THE WEEK.

He claimed that the Shri Beleshwar Mahadev temple construction over the stepwell in question started after a child died after falling in the then open well in 1985 and a decision was taken to cover up the well. “The construction was done under the garb of closing the well after that tragedy.”

stepwell-deaths The collapsed roof of the stepwell

He also alleged that all these illegal religious structures, including the Beleshawar Mahadev temple, have political patronage and that is why it did not face any action despite two notices by IMC. He pointed out that despite the tragedy and the problems in the rescue work due to cramped space, the authorities did not remove the tin-shed which served as the roof of the temple. The tin roof still stands even when the rescue has been completed, Kodwani pointed out.

The activist said he had been instrumental in getting a survey of wells and borewells done in 1970 and 1,400 were listed. In the survey by IMC two years ago, only 629 step-wells were mentioned.

As for the illegal construction on garden land by the temple trust in question, Kodwani mentioned that as per the IMC records presented in courts (in a petition by Kodwani), there are 1,153 community gardens in Indore, though there should be 2,300 gardens as per rule. “Of these, 875 gardens were physically verified and it was found that there were 63 temples and 113 overhead water tanks (of IMC) constructed on them. How were these structures made on garden lands? In 1985 the garden in scheme 31 was earmarked as ‘Sneh Vatika’ for children under a scheme of IDA by the then chairman Harsh Mander (now activist). The illegal construction by the Shri Beleshwar Mahadev Jhulelal Temple is on this garden land,” he said. 

He alleged that another illegal temple in the locality has been constructed by a family member of a senior RSS functionary and asked whether any government official would have the courage to take action.

Kodwani said he will present all the documents related to these illegal constructions, including that by the IMC before the committee of the magisterial probe, when it starts the inquiry process. “I will give them the 30 days requisite time for action and then take the matter to Indore High Court. I will take this matter to the finish this time,” the activist said.

BJP cancels road show, grand welcome to PM Modi

In the wake of the tragedy, the ruling BJP cancelled its plan of holding a brief road show and grand welcome to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 1 during his visit to Bhopal, BJP state president Vishnu Dutt Sharma announced on Friday. The PM is scheduled to attend the Combined Commanders’ Conference (CCC) of Indian military services and flag-off a Vande Bharat Express from Rani Kamlapati Railway Station.

MP Congress chief Kamal Nath will visit the spot of tragedy and meet injured persons in the hospital on Saturday. Congress MP Digvijaya Singh visited the spot on Thursday. On Friday, slogans were raised when CM Chouhan, Home Minister Narottam Mishra and minister Tulsi Silawat were visiting the spot.

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